It remains one of the more remarkable episodes in the recent history of UK aviation and thrust NATS into the public consciousness in a way it wasn’t used to. Now, a decade later, we’ve gone back to talk to two of the key people involved during that week to get the inside story.
Dr David Harrison was NATS’ Safety Director at the time: “I remember it didn’t make me universally popular! I had hundreds of emails from passengers angry at being stranded around the world. People who had honeymoons cancelled, trips of a lifetime lost. It was a very tough time, but the fact was it all came down to safety and the rules as they existed at the time.”
No airspace restrictions were initially introduced, but the team watched as the ash crept closer and closer to the UK. David remembers the unusually consistent weather conditions at the time.
You might expect the wind direction to change every few days, but it was a perfect storm: a volcano sitting directly under the Jet Stream with a very consistent south easterly wind forecast for over a week and heading straight for us.
David drove the short distance from NATS’ head office to Swanwick where he ended up staying for the best part of the next 24 hours. With the first wave of transatlantic traffic leaving North America and ash positioned ominously in its path they were approaching decision time; wait and hope or begin to effectively close down access to parts of the airspace.
Pictured: A composite map showing the position of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud that closed European air space in different days.
What’s more David wasn’t even sure they’d definitely made the right decision. Had they overreached? “There was a chance that the decision a small group of us had made that night would be overruled by the CAA or DfT the following day. The judgement we made was that it was better to end up looking very silly and for me to get the sack than to take the risk. It was a very long night.”
That long night became a long week, as not only was that late-night decision not overturned, it was extended to cover the entire UK as the cloud enveloped huge swathes of northern Europe.
Under the guidance that existed at the time, aircraft could not fly through ash, so NATS had to stop accepting flight plans. Our airspace wasn’t ever actually ‘closed’ but it was effectively the same thing.
Things then settled into a strange routine, with NATS working with the UK Met Office to publish six hourly ash forecasts followed by calls with airlines and airports, and a constant round of media interviews over days and weeks. NATS people appeared on TV screens from New Zealand to the US. The new Chief Executive, Richard Deakin, who had only taken up his post on April 1, found himself doing his first NATS interview live on the BBC’s Newsnight.
“Controllers were issued with verbatim, legally approved instructions to read out over the radio, informing pilots of the airspace status and asking that they state their intentions. We had the legal team sat alongside the teams who were writing the new procedures, to ensure we were compliant with UK Government policy and legislation.”
At 4am on 20 April, the CAA lifted the restrictions and controllers were able to guide the flights safely in to land using the procedures created only hours earlier.
Paul adds: “Our responsibility is to apply the rules as they’re set and to keep the airspace safe, so that’s what we did. We provided a safe service to our customers and supported the CAA in writing new rules and then writing the supporting procedures for flights in volcanic ash. All the planes landed safely.”
Pictured: The estimated ash cloud.