LONDON The world's first man-made ash cloud has been created by a team led by airline easyJet and planemaker Airbus to test how passenger aircraft cope with volcanic blasts such as the 2010 Icelandic eruption.
The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano shut down much of Europe's airspace for six days, affecting more than 10 million people and costing $1.7 billion.
An Airbus A400M test plane on Wednesday dispersed one tonne of ash over the Bay of Biscay, off western France, creating conditions similar to that of the 2010 eruption, said the team, which also included Norwegian sensor maker Nicarnica Aviation.
The ash used in the test was from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, collected and stored by scientists in Reykjavik.
The cloud produced was 600-800 feet high and 1.75 miles wide. It was initially visible to the naked eye but dissipated quickly, becoming difficult to identify, said easyJet.
A second Airbus plane, an A340-300, was fitted with Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector (AVOID) technology, invented by Dr. Fred Prata from NILU, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research. It attempted to identify and measure the cloud from around 40 miles away.
A smaller aircraft, a Diamond DA42, then flew into the cloud to take measurements to corroborate the AVOID system's findings.
It found the sensor had successfully detected the cloud and accurately measured its density, which was within the range of concentrations measured during the ash crisis in April and May 2010.
EasyJet, Europe's second biggest budget airline behind Ryanair by market value, now plans to fit the volcanic ash detection equipment on some of its planes by the end of 2014.
"The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this (test) ... finding a solution is as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased across Europe for several days," said Ian Davies, easyJet's engineering director.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Rhys Jones; Editing by Pravin Char)