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During the largest air traffic shut down since World War II, it’s perhaps unsurprising that engineers around the world were desperate to solve the problems caused by volcanic ash in 2010. What might surprise you is that one of our engineers came up with the solution, then shared it with the world. Meet Rory Clarkson, the man who tamed the volcano.

Cast your mind back to 2010 when Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Chaos ensued as around 20 countries shuttered their commercial airspace and around 10 million travellers faced delays. Some airlines were losing as much £20 million a day – see left/right for why.

After the eruption, the industry chose a default safe mode of avoiding any discernible ash and staying grounded, rather than actively seeking a solution. That’s where Rory came in.

In the 30 years since, geology had moved on a huge amount and Rory’s understanding of geological terms helped him with his research – perhaps more so than other engineers tasked with the same project.

By sharing and analysing customer and UK Meteorological Office data, Rory developed a new model to determine in what levels of volcanic ash aircraft could fly, and for how long.

“There was an element sheer bloody mindedness from me to solve it,” he adds, “but the mathematical model gave us results that were previously inexplicable.”

Rory was asked to effectively set up a test on a C17 aircraft in the Mojave Desert, California, monitoring the technology to give the flight crew real-time updates on engine deterioration.

With more than 130 million flying hours in service, the Trent engine has been at the heart of our success for the last 30 years and will continue to serve us well into the future.

“I put together a database of eight in-service events using 17 data points from test beds with ash and material that looks like ash to produce a chart that’s now known as the Clarkson chart, which shows the concentration of the ash. Total avoidance of flying led to the problems of 2010 so we needed to get to a place where customers could operate in some levels of ash.”

After more than a year of calculations, checking and comparing the data points, Rory got the Trent family of engines to a place where they could all fly in some level of ash with no safety implications. But his work didn’t stop there.

“After speaking to the Board, I got the go-ahead to make our method available to anyone who needed or wanted it. Would any other engine company do that? I’m not sure they would, but we felt strongly that this solution was about safety and therefore was for the benefit of humanity and aviation. We’re neighbourly for the right reasons: short-termism helps no-one.”

UK Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg described the Clarkson chart as “an outstanding contribution to aviation safety, demonstrating the kind of innovative work that is vital to this field.”

Rory’s breakthrough was also recognised with a UK Civil Aviation Authority flight safety award and laid the groundwork for our industry-leading research into the effects of other atmospheric events, such as sandstorms or hurricanes, on engine performance.

As the volcano was located under the jet stream, its debris was distributed straight towards Europe. Because part of the eruption happened beneath a thick layer of ice, the resulting water vapour added to the explosive force, and much of the lava cooled exceptionally quickly, creating a cloud of coarse ash – chock-full of fresh glass shards.

Were this ash ingested into a jet engine, the particulates would melt in the scorching core clogging cooling vents, distorting turbine blades and corroding compressor blades. It’s safe to say aircraft and volcanic ash do not mix well – result: airlines grounding planes.

VIDEO: Bloomberg TV report from the day of the eruptions.

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