This story was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on Saturday, Dec. 16, 1989.
A KLM Boeing 747 was about 5 miles up and headed for Anchorage on Friday when it flew into a cloud of ash from Redoubt Volcano and its four powerful turbofan engines stopped.
“We went into this steep descent, ” said passenger David Farrell, a 20-year-old West High School graduate coming home for the holidays after studies in London. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through, like there was just this weight pulling down on the nose of the plane.
“It was dark. People were screaming, throwing up. It was like you can imagine. Pretty near panic.”
“The stewardesses cried, ‘Everybody put seat belts on,’ ” passenger Karl Schnuerl said. “Some tried. Everybody just held on.”
The aircraft fell for about 12 minutes, dropping from about 25,000 feet to about 13,000 feet, a distance of more than 2 miles. By then, pilot Karl van der Elst and his crew were able to get two engines restarted and brought the plane under control. About 15 minutes later, with all four engines running, van der Elst set flight 867 down on the runway at Anchorage International Airport.
None of the 231 passengers and 13 crew members was injured, according to federal investigators. Mechanics from Boeing were to come to Anchorage later this weekend to determine how badly the engines were damaged by the ash.
Two other aircraft were damaged by encounters with ash during the day, but did not suffer engine failure and landed safely.
The KLM jumbo jet was on a flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo, with a noon stopover to let off 14 passengers in Anchorage. According to investigator Roy Daw of the National Transportation Safety Board, the aircraft was about 75 miles northwest of Anchorage, descending from its cruising level of 39,000 feet, when pilot van der Elst saw what he thought was a dark cloud in front of him.
“He said he saw light and then dark clouds,” Daw said. ”(The ash cloud) was hard to tell. It doesn’t show up on radar.”
Neither the pilot nor KLM officials in Anchorage would talk with reporters Friday.
By the time the aircraft entered the cloud, it was at about 25,000 feet. In the passenger cabin, Schnuerl saw it get black outside his window.
“The captain tells us, ‘It’s the volcano,’ ” Schnuerl said in hesitant English. He and his wife, Maria, both 66, flew to Anchorage from Vienna on Friday to spend the holidays with their daughter, Maria Zeiger, and her family. “Suddenly, it gets dark inside, with smoke.”
The dark, acrid volcanic ash was being sucked into the airplane. Daw said van der Elst realized what he’d flown into and started to climb.
“Ten to 15 seconds later,” Daw said, “all four engines quit.”
“I made sure I did some quick ones,” Farrell said, clasping his hands in front of his face as if in prayer. “Everyone just started screaming and getting sick. It was more than a little scary.”
At 13,000 feet, Daw said, the pilot was finally able to start engines 1 and 2, on the plane’s left wing, “after six or seven tries.” The 747 can be flown on two engines. With power, van der Elst was able to level the craft. Another 2,000 feet, and the other two engines engaged.
Airport fire engines and other emergency vehicles stood by on the north-south runway as the jumbo jet touched down cleanly and taxied to the international terminal.
Even safe on the ground, some passengers were still shaken. Schnuerl touched his wife’s face with his fingertips and said how pale she seemed.
“Es war schrecklich (It was terrible),” Maria Schnuerl said.
Unclear Friday was whether van der Elst knew fully the disaster floating in his flight path. Daw said the pilot said he did not recognize the cloud as ash. However, he was still gathering the day’s flight notices and other information available to KLM to determine what the airline knew.
“He knew about the ash and was advised about it even before he got in the area,” said Paul Steucke, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. “The information was the best we could provide with the resources and technology we got.”
The pilot of a British Airways jet scheduled to land in Anchorage at 12:25 p.m. rerouted rather than follow the same path, said Dan Salt, British Airways manager in Alaska.
“In the end it was the captain’s decision,” he said. “He was not happy with the information he was being given. It was the question of the accuracy of it. He was just saying that, ‘(Alaska) doesn’t sound like a place I want to be flying through today.’ ” The plane was rerouted through Seattle, Salt said.
A Korean Airlines jet about 15 minutes behind KLM flight 867 was quickly ordered to detour out of the path by air traffic controllers, according to K.M. Moon, Korean Airlines station manager.
Jet engine failures because of volcanic ash are not uncommon. Twice in 1982, jumbo jets plummeted earthward after flying through ash plumes spewed from Java’s Galunggung volcano, 110 miles southeast of Jakarta. The first was on June 24, when two engines on a British Airways 747 failed and the plane fell 19,000 feet before making an emergency landing. Three weeks later, all four engines of a Singapore Airlines jumbo jet quit, dropping the craft a mile-and- a-half before the pilot could restart them.
Vulcanologist Juergen Kienle, of the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, said that volcanic ash melts when it gets into jet engines. The molten silica coats the inside of the engine with glass, which confuses sensitive engine monitoring equipment.
Safety equipment is fooled into thinking the engine is overheating, Kienle said, and an automatic shutdown begins. An alert pilot flying at a high enough altitude can safely restart the engines, Kienle said, but a pilot flying at low elevations might not have enough time to save the airplane.
Daily News reporters Hal Bernton and Craig Medred contributed to this story.