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A volcanic eruption affects the whole of Europe – is the air clear?

26. April 2010, 10.20, Jan Wörner, 0 Comment/s
Two days after the successful flight of DLR's Falcon research aircraft, the airspace over Germany has been re-opened. Admittedly, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano is still ejecting lava and ash, but the German weather service (DWD), the German air traffic control organisation (DFS) and the German Federal Ministry of Transport (BMVBS) have authorised flights again on the basis of current weather data. DLR has carried out two more flights after requests from the authorities, and the dust has settled, or – to be more precise – has moved on.

After the first successful flight by the Falcon, which clearly detected the ash cloud, DLR issued this statement:

"The more than three-hour flight by the DLR Falcon research aircraft provided additional information on the ash cloud situation over Germany. The scientific results were handed over to the Federal Ministry of Transport on Tuesday. On completion of the flight, the Falcon was subjected to a comprehensive inspection. When the port engine was examined, damage to an injection nozzle in the combustion chamber was found."

Behind this official statement lay an extraordinarily complex set of questions. Was the damage due to normal wear and tear? Had the damage occurred suddenly? Was there any connection to flying through the ash cloud? Answering the three questions led to different conclusions. The first priority was to determine the cause. At the same time, various scenarios were examined, in order to act swiftly. The range of options extended from a complete engine replacement to a complete flight ban for the Falcon. All this happened under considerable time constraints and political pressure. In such a situation, communication with the various agencies involved is particularly important, especially when responsibility and risk assessment are involved. If, for me – as the Chairman of the Board and having no relevant specialist knowledge – the situation was not clear, then perhaps it is understandable that people who are even less involved with technology and science in their daily lives found it all the more difficult to understand and would rather take refuge in generalities, but at the same time are not ready to accept responsibility. After the technicians and scientists had provided me with their best information, and after consulting some members of the board, I authorised the two additional measurement flights, fully aware that, in the event of a problem, the blame would lie with the Chairman of the Board.

DLR Falcon20E. Image Credit: DLR.
DLR Falcon 20E research aircraft. Source: DLR.

In the end, the Falcon landed safely at Oberpfaffenhoffen on Friday afternoon, the 23rd of April 2010, with a great deal of important information. Many people are to be thanked for this and, later, we shall celebrate together!

Envisat-Aufnahmen der Eyjafjallajoekull-Aschewolke (17-20 April 2010)I hope that the overall situation in the aviation world will soon ease and that we can get back to 'normal' science. At the same time, the recent events have given me reason to address the question of the services provided by DLR in the context of sudden crises, so that we can make an even better contribution. In response to a proposal by Secretary of State Peter Hintze, we have now set up a task force to deal with the topics of ash and engines, with the participation of both external and internal experts. The next step must now be taken. I have offered the Federal Minister of Transport a special DLR service that is ready for action at any time to clarify specific airspace safety questions. DLR, with its scientists, its equipment and its pan-institute mode of operations – from atmospheric research and long-distance reconnaissance to engine technology and air traffic, is best equipped for this. Even in these fields, we are in discussion with various participants outside DLR. The example of last week has shown how innovative science and specific, topical inquiries can be brought together to produce clear statements. The official question, "Can you not just hire a pilot?" indicates a certain lack of understanding of the complexity of the technology and the scientific requirements in such cases. In this regard, it is essential to strengthen communication.

Even though it seemed as if there was no topic other than volcanic ash in the public eye for about a week, DLR was also occupied with other matters at the same time: the development of thermo-electric generators, the conclusion of an agreement on the Application Platform Intelligent Mobility (Anwendungsplattform Intelligente Mobilität; AIM) in the field of transport, the Franco-German climate mission Merlin, the preparations for the start of the Earth observation mission TanDEM-X, the build-up of a safety research programme, further steps towards implementing the DLR strategy and putting German space strategy into concrete terms – to name just a few.

Translated from the German original.

Photo below: Development of the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud during the period 17-20 April 2010; images acquired by the European environmental satellite Envisat. Source: ESA.


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