Flight Operations in Volcanic Ash


  • Severe volcanic eruptions which send ash into the upper atmosphere occur somewhere around the world several times each year
  • Flying into a volcanic ash cloud can be exceedingly dangerous
  • Piston-powered aircraft are less likely to lose power but severe damage is almost certain to ensue after an encounter with a volcanic ash cloud which is only a few hours old

  • The ash plume may not be visible, especially in instrument conditions or at night; and even if visible, it is difficult to distinguish visually between an ash cloud and an ordinary weather cloud
  • Volcanic ash clouds are not displayed on airborne or ATC radar
  • The pilot must rely on reports from air traffic controllers and other pilots to determine the location of the ash cloud and use that information to remain well clear of the area
    • Additionally, the presence of a sulphur-like odor throughout the cabin may indicate the presence of SO2 emitted by volcanic activity, but may or may not indicate the presence of volcanic ash
  • Every attempt should be made to remain on the upwind side of the volcano

  • It is recommended that pilots encountering an ash cloud should immediately reduce thrust to idle (altitude permitting), and reverse course in order to escape from the cloud
  • Ash clouds may extend for hundreds of miles and pilots should not attempt to fly through or climb out of the cloud
European Iceland Volcano
Figure 1: 2010 Iceland Volcano


  • Flight crews who have experienced encounters with volcanic dust clouds reported:
    • Smoke or dust appearing in the cockpit
    • An acrid odor similar to electrical smoke
    • Multiple engine malfunctions, such as compressor stalls, increasing EGT, torching from tailpipe, and flame-outs
    • At night, St. Elmo's fire or other static discharges accompanied by a bright orange glow in the engine inlets
    • A fire warning in the forward cargo area

What to do:

  • It may become necessary to shut down and then restart engines to prevent exceeding EGT limits
  • Volcanic ash may block the Pitot system and result in unreliable airspeed indications
  • If you see a volcanic eruption and have not been previously notified of it, you may have been the first person to observe it
    • In this case, immediately contact ATC and alert them to the existence of the eruption
    • If possible, use the Volcanic Activity Reporting (VAR) Form
    • Items 1 through 8 of the VAR should be transmitted immediately
    • The information requested in items 9 through 16 should be passed after landing
    • If a VAR form is not immediately available, relay enough information to identify the position and nature of the volcanic activity
    • Do not become unnecessarily alarmed if there is merely steam or very low-level eruptions of ash
  • When landing at airports where volcanic ash has been deposited on the runway, be aware that even a thin layer of dry ash can be detrimental to braking action. Wet ash on the runway may also reduce effectiveness of braking. It is recommended that reverse thrust be limited to minimum practical to reduce the possibility of reduced visibility and engine ingestion of airborne ash
  • When departing from airports where volcanic ash has been deposited, it is recommended that pilots avoid operating in visible airborne ash. Allow ash to settle before initiating takeoff roll. It is also recommended that flap extension be delayed until initiating the before takeoff checklist and that a rolling takeoff be executed to avoid blowing ash back into the air

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers
Figure 2: Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers

Case Studies:

  • NTSB Identification: , The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: Inadvertent encounter with volcanic ash cloud, which resulted in damage from foreign material (foreign object) and subsequent compressor stalling of all engines. A factor related to the accident was: The lack of available information about the ash cloud to all personnel involved

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers: