So Iceland is in the news again. The little country the size of a small town yet again holds an influential position over Europe – albeit for more ‘natural’ reasons this time…
A volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing ash into the atmosphere and the whole of Northern Europe’s airspace has been closed down because of this. Yet when I look outside my window, the skies seem pretty clear to me. I’m not an expert or anything on the subject but I have had firsthand experience with volcanoes erupting and getting my flight disrupted…
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That’s because today’s shenanigans reminded me of a similar incident involving me and my family over 15 years ago. We were emigrating from the UK to NZ and to fly from Heathrow to Wellington back in 1996 involved a stop in LA and then a transfer in Auckland to another plane bound for Wellington. This means a journey time of between 30-36 hours, plus you have to put your clocks forward 12 hours when you land. So not a short journey by any stretch and one which is physically and emotionally draining…
Now, for those of you who do not know, like Iceland, New Zealand also straddles a fault line, meaning that there are a few active volcanoes. One of the most active in recent years has been Mt. Ruapehu, which lies in between Wellington and Auckland.
Now, it had erupted in 1995, but it was also quiet for a few months. Little did we know that when we departed from Heathrow on the 4th of July 1996 that it had started again. When we landed in LAX we were informed of this, so we sat around in the holding lounge for about 4 hours, munching on coffee and Danish while waiting to take off again. It didn’t help that the local TV news had stories like ‘flight of terror’ for sure!
We finally set off on the second 12-hour stint from LAX to Auckland, only to be told that we needed to land in Fiji to take on fuel in case we were diverted or delayed further. We stayed on the plane, which did not seem to take too long from memory. The trouble started when we approached Auckland. Now, the fog from the ash was so thick, that when we tried to land, the pilot had to abort. He made a second attempt and felt like he had got really close to the ground, but aborted again (really gunning the throttles too). He announced he was going to land in Christchurch instead – which meant somehow flying around the volcano over the North Island to get there.
We actually flew near the volcano while it was erupting! Now, not through the ash cloud or anything, but even though I was jet lagged I clearly remember what I saw. The whole horizon was covered in a low cloud (which we were flying above), and I saw what looked like a giant hyperactive smoke stack in the distance. It was the volcano erupting! Sadly I didn’t get a pic, but man it was an awesome sight to see!
The rest of the flight? We landed safely in Christchurch, which was chock full of planes, people and all the food had ran out so we were starving. We were delayed another 8 hours and then finally got on a rickety old propeller plane to Wellington. were were probably over 12 hours late when we finally landed, and luckily my parents’ friends were there to pick us up. But we were exhausted! What a way to start your new life in a country you knew almost nothing about eh?
My final thought is this: the Ruapehu eruptions caused widespread fog, heavy rains and bad cloud conditions. Yet today’s eruption in Iceland doesn’t seem to have done that (and is a lot further away). So why close down all of Europe’s airports? I understand the concern for safety, but have we been over cautious?
Perhaps the eruption I saw wasn’t a typical one – or that ash is quite fine and harder to see. Who knows? But if you are affected by the delays or cancellations or know someone who is, then I hope that you are being looked after and that you are able to make your journey as soon as possible…