Sunday, May 22, 2011

Deja Vu

Here we go again. Another volcanic eruption has reared its ugly head, this time in Europe's largest glacier.

I must say that the pictures are impressive. Here's one from shot by Steinunn S. Jakobsdóttir. 

The size and power is amazing, this is the largest eruption since at least 1947. This is a lot bigger than last year's Eyjafjallajökull eruption. So far, it is not causing as much havoc.

I do not tend to discuss my work much, not here or in real life. Air Traffic Control is much like Accounting - no one really wants to listen as long as you're doing your job properly. This eruption however reminds me of the events last year and the impact on my work.

When I was in training, we were told about the normal protocol when it comes to volcanoes. About the first closures of air space and the role of the London VAAC (Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre). I worked the nightshift the same day it all started last year and by then the airspace had been pretty much shut down already. It was very strange seeing this in action all of the sudden. It was the start of the biggest aviation interruptions known. In my job it meant long hours of clear skies with nothing to do. It was very boring and boring is something most Air Traffic Controllers don't like very much.

The days that followed were very much like that. I deal with transatlantic flights and due to the so-called no-fly zones the airlines were going south of the Icelandic airspace. I was trying to wrap up my additional radar qualifications at the time so I was unable to clock very valuable hours.

Then political pressure started increasing. Closed airports and enormously large areas of airspace being shut down didn't sound good and caused the massive interruptions. So some changes to the no-fly zones were introduced. Now that was a pain. Drawing up three different areas, different airports opening and closing for business and domestic flights jumping through hoops to keep operating.

Finally, towards the end of the eruption the winds shifted causing a massive surge in air traffic. What the air traffic controllers achieved was a feat we're unlikely to repeat anytime soon (well, maybe we might!). It's also very unrecognised. In an area where 300 aircraft on a normal day is a lot, for the air traffic to spike to one thousand aircraft over a period of 24 hours several days in a row, could only be achieved with a joint effort by everybody. Us Air Traffic Controllers are often said to be lazy but not a single person wasn't ready to drop their plans to help make this happen -and it did.

This time around I'm on maternity leave and thus staying on the sideline. All flight in Iceland has been cancelled, at least until tomorrow afternoon, but I gather that international flight is mostly unaffected. I hope this will be a short lasting eruption. Especially as I have a holiday planned in June!

Here is another photo from, a NASA satelite photo of Iceland and this year's eruption and ash cloud.

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