Sunday, 18 April 2010

No Dust Over Brighton

I've been up over Brighton this morning flying a banner over the inaugural marathon in the town. A glorious hazy day in warm sunshine and thousands of runners threading their way along the streets and the seafront. In fact I wouldn't envy any of them in this temperature, as I'm sure a number of runners are going to encounter heat stress given the sudden change in temperature.

On the way over there, I found I was the only pilot on the London information frequency which covers the entire south of England. It was a bizarre experience because normally there's a busy level of communications chatter on a weekend but early this morning, just an eerie silence.

By noon, the airwaves had 'warmed-up' as more light aircraft pilots took to the skies. Piston-engined aircraft which have filters installed as standard don't face the same level of risk from volcanic dust as jet-engined aircraft at high altitudes and so it seemed that everybody who could fly was taking a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly over Gatwick or head towards Heathrow for a look see.

Gatwick reported earlier that the dust cloud had been detected at 5,000 feet but that's still-up in controlled airspace, which remains closed. It seems that executive jets are trying to sneak back in under visual flight rules (VFR) as the upper levels remain closed and while I was returning home, I heard a Citation coming back in across the Channel at low level, doing 380 knots, so good reason to keep one's eyes peeled!

France has opened-up its uncontrolled airspace to VFR flights which allows people who are marooned on the continent and with friends who have aircraft; to call on the 'Dunkirk Spirit' and have them come in to Calais or Le Touquet to collect them.

What worries me now is not just the economic impact of the eruption on struggling airlines but that the much larger sister volcano in Iceland might suddenly go 'bang' in sympathy; effectively crippling Europe's airspace for weeks ahead. While we are all enjoying the ridge of  high pressure weather over the UK, for the sake of the airline industry and tens of thousands of stranded passengers, a north Atlantic depression with strong winds is the only hope for clearing the dust away!