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What volcanic ash can do to a jet

It was days before Christmas and a 747 flying the colors of the Dutch airline KLM is descending toward Anchorage en route from Amsterdam to Tokyo. Up ahead the pilot tells the airport he’s spotted a cloud that’s “just a little browner than a normal cloud.”

Within seconds, the jet is enveloped in black, sulphurous smoke, the cockpit electronics go crazy and all four engines flame out. The giant jet is transformed into a powerless glider and plummets more than two miles toward the Talkeetna Mountains with 231 petrified passengers onboard. Minutes away from disaster, the crew manages to restart the engines and bring her in safely to land.

After that terrifying 1989 encounter caused by an eruption of Alaska’s Mount Redoubt, the Dutch were taking no chances with their own airspace Thursday as an ash cloud from Iceland drifted toward the European mainland.

The Dutch and Belgian governments followed those in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia by shutting down their airspace. Air traffic was due to come to a total halt by early evening, adding to the unprecedented disruption across northwest Europe. Over Belgium only search and rescue helicopters will be allowed to fly, along with two F-16 fighters in case the kingdom’s airspace needs defending.

Belgium’s Royal Meteorological Institute warned disappointed weather watchers that the cloud was unlikely to hit the country until after dark, dimming hopes of the spectacular, multicolored sunset that can come with such a volcanic haze. On a brighter note, officials said the cloud would not harm human health.

The impact of the Eyjafjallajoekul eruption was a leading news story in much of the Benelux media, with the leading Belgian daily De Standaard taking a particularly hard line with an online opinion piece titled: “Dust and other crap from Iceland.” It reminded readers that as well as stranding tens of thousands of air passengers, the Nordic nation had recently ruined hordes of European savers through the collapse of its banking system, as well as assaulting the continent’s sensitive eardrums through the music of Bjork and Sigur Ros, committing fashion crimes with their sweaters and offering tourists rotting shark for dinner.

More on the effects of the ash cloud.


Another transport story knocked the volcanic cloud down the news agenda of Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which cheered listeners with the police data showing a “dramatic reduction” in the number of stolen bikes last year.