Exercise VOLCEUR 08

The post exercise report on this exercise, held in 2008, which had a scenario similar to the recent Icelandic volcano eruption, shows an exercise of very limited scope. In the words of the Economist, its main achievement was was to show that the situation was “entirely foreseeable”. Reminds me of Exercise Pam.

VOLCEUR 08 was held on Tuesday 12th February 2008 from 0800 GMT to 19.00 GMT and organised by the VAAC London. A large number of organsiations took part, mostly national Met Offices, “NOTAM offices”, and Air Navigation Serivce Providers (ANSPs).

The summarised scenario reads:
“0800 UTC
• Sub-glacial volcanic activities detected in Katla.
• Eruption is estimated to break the surface of the glacier at 0900-0930 UTC
0900 UTC
• Ash column is detected on radar and has reached a height of FL550.
Heavy volcanic eruption continues throughout the exercise day with ash column up to FL550.”
There were actually about 40 injects timed from 0800 to 2000.

Participants included (for the first time) an airline, KLM. The report notes: “Airlines would benefit from all exercise information (and for a real event) to be made available on one website.” (It appears that Air France were also invited but could not attend.) As this seems to have only been the second volcanic exercise ever, it was perhaps understandable that airlines were not invited to the first.

The report included comments by each participant. Most related to points of detail in the notification process. (For example, email addresses, and whether all participants had access to the internet.)

Another document worth looking at is a presentation on Volcanic Ash SIGMET given by Greg Brock of VAAC London to a VA Workshop, ENAV Catania, in June 2009. This includes as examples some of the SIGMETs generated as injects for VOLCEUR 08, and shows how SIGMETs from one area were picked up and echoed by other areas. Brock concluds: “Experience from recent volcanic ash contingency exercises within the NAT and EUR regions has shown that there are occasionally different approaches employed by MWOs regarding the content of VA SIGMET messages, for example:
•Some MWOs appear to follow ICAO guidelines and standards, others less so; and
•When VA cloud straddles two or more FIRs, the information between neighbouring FIRs is inconsistent.
•This can cause great difficulties for operators who are expected to make tactical decisions based on VA SIGMET information”#
However he seems to be talking largely about small formal differences in layout and terms used in a highly formalised signal. Brock recommends training and more exercises to overcome this problem.

The wider impact of the event was not really addressed.

KLMs comments included: “Only one KLM Flight would have been diverted from Vancouver.
• Network control would have cancelled flights to Norway and all European
Flights from 15z.
• Long-haul flights to North America and Far east unaffected initially but then
many cancellations later. KLM would try to bring all flights back to Amsterdam,
but long haul would go if possible.”

LVNL: (from the Netherlands) commented “very good coordination is needed with the aircraft operator, at least locally, to get ahead of the situation as far as practical. There was no indication of how traffic evolved when other ACC’s took action by issuing zero rates on their airspaces” and recommended “a recovery plan in coordination with the AO’s has to be created to eventually increase the capacity in the sectors.”

I particularly liked the classic comment: “French NOTAM Office received a message from AIS Russia. Russia wanted to be sure that NOTAMs were related to an exercise (even if it was stated more than 10 times within each NOTAM). It seems we need to find an efficient way to inform countries outside the ECAC region that such exercise are planned!”

What seems to be missing is
– any comments about the level of ash which was held to be safe. (On April 21 the CAA established a safe level of below 2000 micrograms of dust per cubic metre. According to The Economist of 24 April, the highest density fouond by any research flights during the crisis was 400 micrograms per m3)
– any provision for alternatives to model-based prediction, eg sampling flights. (IATA said We must make decisions based on the real situation in the sky, not on theoretical models. There has been quite a lot of criticsm of the model actually used, though it is difficult to say whether this is justified..)
– any test of the political mechanism for deciding to declare zones closed. This seems to have been taken automatically, or at least at operational level, on the precautionary principle – ie we dont know how dangerous it is but it may cause fatalities, so we will play safe.
– any assessment of the implications. (The exercise only lasted for hours, whilst the direct effects of the real incident caused days of chaos before they were finally resolved. Cost implications – reported to be $2 billion by some UK newspapers, will take much longer to sort out.)

As The Economist said, “if the exercise two years ago did not capture the range of problems that an Icelandic volcano might cause, it did show that the general situation was entirely foreseeable.”

This exercise reminds me of Exercise Pam, which preceded Hurricane Katrina. Each exercise preceded a highly public disaster, when the reaction of the authorities was strongly criticised. The Pam scenario captured the full implications of a major hurricane: the problem was that the lessons identified were never followed up properly. Volceur 08, on the other hand, seems to have focussed too narrowly on the technicalities of official coordination, and ignored the major impact of a real incident.

PS: on 7 May the BBC reported: “Now, scientists and engineers have agreed a safe threshold – a concentration of ash of 0.002g per cubic metre of air. At or below this concentration, there is no damage to the engine….Current data suggested that concentrations of ash in UK airspace [during the ban> were around 100 micrograms (or 0.0001g) per cubic metre, explained Dr Grant Allen from the Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Manchester. ”

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