Flight segments

Eyjafjallajökull

Personal recollection by Dr. Ora Lassila, Aviation Museum of NH's advisor and founder of So Many Aircraft

In April 2010 I was traveling in Finland on business. On Thursday, April 14th, the day I was supposed to return to the US, I got a phone call from my boss who asked me to meet with someone the following day. So I changed my return ticket to the 15th.

But...

Sad-looking departure board at the Helsinki airport on the evening of 2010-04-19. All flights cancelled except my flight and a flight to Stockholm; I do not know if that one ever made it. Photo by Ora Lassila / So Many Aircraft

Later that day, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing volcanic ash high into the atmosphere and bringing most European air traffic to a complete halt. Now, I was stuck in Finland with no clear idea when I could return to the US. Was it going to be days, weeks, or months? Nobody had that answer. It was feared that the small particles of the volcanic ash would cause damage to jet engines, and as a safety precaution, large areas of Europe became "unflyable" as the winds kept pushing the ash further and further south. Obviously, my flight that Friday was cancelled.

I spent the weekend first considering reasonable alternatives to traveling from Helsinki to Boston. Could I fly east, over Siberia and across the Pacific? That was not really an option. Eventually I progressed to the "unreasonable" alternatives. Could I rent a car, drive to Cherbourg in France (easily over 1,600 miles), and sail on a freighter over to Norfolk, Virginia? Not really an option, either...

On Monday (aka "Day 5") I heard from a colleague that Finnair, the Finnish national airline, was rumored to fly their JFK (New York) to Helsinki flight, presumably along a great circle route that would take them north of the volcano. The Helsinki airport was going to open briefly that evening. A call to Finnair confirmed this, as well as the fact that they were also going to return to the US the same evening. I purchased a one-way coach ticket on the spot.

The Airbus A330 is fueled before our hasty departure. Photo by Ora Lassila / So Many Aircraft

After arriving at the airport several hours before the anticipated departure of flight AY005 I learned that the airport was going to close earlier than planned, and that I would have to run to my gate to make the flight. The terminal building was eerily empty, all other flights had been canceled. I made it to the gate, ran directly into the aircraft, and they closed the door behind me. I couldn't help but think of the scene from the 1995 film version of Stephen King's "Langoliers" where the protagonists have to make a hasty departure from the Bangor airport.

The aircraft was half-empty, I gather because most people had not realized that the flight was going to depart hours earlier than scheduled. I was tired, but wanted to stay awake until the plane was over Iceland, hoping to catch a sight of the volcano. No such luck, however, because our route took as far north of the volcano, and the skies over Iceland were also partially overcast.

Iceland beneath. We were too far north to see the volcano. Photo by Ora Lassila / So Many Aircraft

The flight arrived without incidents at JFK sometime close to midnight. No connecting flights to Boston at that time anymore, so I rented a car, drove to the Boston airport, picked up my car from the parking garage, and drove home to NH. I was at home around 6 am on Tuesday morning, 6 days after the eruption. Restrictions on airline traffic were gradually removed, starting on the following weekend, but intermittent disruptions happened over several weeks.