Multiple volcanoes erupt yearly propelling volcanic ash into the atmosphere and creating an aviation hazard. The plinian eruption type is most likely to create a significant aviation hazard. Plinian eruptions can eject large quantities of fine ash up to an altitude of 50,000 m (164,000 feet). While large airborne particles rapidly fall, smaller particles at reduced concentrations drift for days to weeks as they gradually descend and deposit on the ground. Very small particles, less than 1 μm, can remain aloft for years.
An average of three aircraft encounters with volcanic ash was reported every year between 1973 and 2003. Of these, 8 resulted in some loss of engine power, including a complete shutdown of all four engines on a Boeing 747. However, no crashes have been attributed to volcanic ash. The major forms of engine damage caused by volcanic ash are:
1. Deposition of ash on turbine nozzles and blades due to glassification
2. Erosion of compressor and turbine blades
3. Carbon deposits on fuel nozzles
The combination of these effects can push the engine to surge and flame out. If a flame out occurs, engine restart may be possible.
Less serious engine damage can also occur. In most cases the major damage will require an engine overhaul long before the minor damage becomes an operational issue, but under some conditions no sign of volcanic ash is evident and the turbine cooling system blockage could go unnoticed until an engine inspection is performed.
Several organizations provide aircrew procedures to respond to encounters with a volcanic ash cloud. If a volcanic ash encounter is suspected, then an engine inspection, including borescope, should be performed with particular attention given to the turbine cooling system.