Volcano grounds air traffic

Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009

No one is flying too high these days thanks to the billowing clouds of volcanic ash released by Mount Redoubt.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
An Everts Air Fuel Douglas DC-6A takes off for the southwest Alaska town of Iliamna from Kenai Municipal Airport between eruptions of Mount Redoubt last Friday afternoon. The active volcano is in a prime spot to disrupt aviation on a local, national and international level.

The eruptions are wreaking havoc on both international and local airlines.

Two large eruptions Saturday afternoon and evening snarled air travel after Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage shut down for 22 hours from 5 p.m. on Saturday until 3 p.m. on Sunday.

On the Kenai Peninsula, local aviators have found themselves flying in far less friendly skies.

"Our problem is that we're not shut down per se, but we have to pick and choose where we're going and we have to be very cognizant of local ash fall," said Sam Copeland, base manager for Everts Air Fuel in Kenai.

Everts delivers fuel to remote locations off the road system, often flying through areas affected by the volcano's ash.

Last week Copeland reported that a delivery to Iliamna was canceled mid-flight when ash was reported at the airport there.

"It would be negligent to continue in that situation," Copeland said.

He said flights go out as conditions permit.

"We're reserving flying to (visual flight rules) flying conditions," he said, explaining that deliveries are only made when pilots can see clearly around them.

Flying through ash is hazardous and an expensive proposition, he explained.

"It's very caustic. The best way to put it is that it's like sandblasting the internal components of your engines. It wears everything out," he said.

He compared it to driving, saying that an hour or two of flying through ash was comparable to several years worth of wear and tear.

While the fuel delivery planes fly at an average altitude of 2,500 feet, Copeland said that at higher altitudes for faster aircrafts, planes not only risk mechanical damage, but also having the abrasive particles glaze over their windshields.

Bob Widman, a pilot at Missionary Aviation Repair Center in Soldotna, said the group is taking a conservative approach in their flights as well.

The non-profit missionary organization provides transportation and freight delivery for churches and missions across the state.

"You never have to fly," Widman said.

Widman takes into account all meteorological data along with reports provided by other pilots operating in the area before getting off the ground.

"We do whatever we have to do to avoid contact with ash. We don't feel we can operate if there's any potential of going into volcanic activity," he said.

The idea of getting caught in an ash cloud was something Widman shuddered to think about, and is not a risk he's willing to take.

"It's like taking a kid that doesn't know how to swim and saying, 'How do you swim in the deep end?' You just don't," he said.

Tim Pope, owner and pilot of Natron Air in Soldotna, wasn't feeling too much pressure from the volcano.

Natron provides charter services through the year, though Pope said most of his business was between Soldotna and Anchorage.

He, too, was optimistic he might get some extra business out of Redoubt this summer.

"The volcano is part of a tour we offer. The fact that blew might help us," he said.

Pope said he was remaining vigilant of the situation.

"We're keeping an eye on it and we're always prepared for the worst," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com

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