Airliner stuck aloft in volcanic cloud
The plane struck the ashbar while cruising at 40,000 feet, minutes after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger caught sight of the cloud, believed to be fallout from the recent Icelandic volcano eruption.
Sulllenberger quickly slipped the plane into reverse. Said the heroic pilot, “In hindsight, that was a mistake, because, as we were backing up, the tip of the starboard wing, and the horizontal stabilizer on the starboard side – or as we pilots call them, the ‘pointy bits’ – just jammed right into the cloud.”
The crew attempted a variety of techniques to free the trapped plane, including moving the elevator flaps, getting all the passengers to jump simultaneously, and engaging engines (both impulse and warp) at full power.
“Nothing worked,” said Sullenberg. “We’re really stuck good up here.”
Passengers straddled the wing and cheered as Sullenberger used ropes to swing Tarzanlike beneath the plane, in an attempt to reach the section of tail that is stuck in the ash. Working with a team of rescue workers, who had been dropped onto the plane by helicopter, the crew worked around the clock trying to chip away at the ash, removing approximately two tons of the dense Icelandic material from the impacted area, but failing to free the plane.
Ash-chipping efforts were later halted when scientists on the ground became concerned about the short-term effects of releasing the plane.
“The plane is basically being held up by its tail and wing,” said FAA engineer Travis Zhukov. “The engines are not running. According to our calculations, if the tail is released, there is a risk the aircraft could just drop to earth, like any other huge metal object suspended in the sky.”
Rescue workers now propose to continue their work from the top of the ash cloud, where they will attempt to drill a passageway diagonally downward. They hope to pull the aircraft through the newly created hole onto the smooth upper surface of the volcanic cloud, where they can attempt a takeoff.
While new plans are formulated, passengers are forced to remain aboard the aircraft. However, fears that they might starve proved groundless. The plane has a large supply of alcohol, peanuts, and breaded chicken, which can be served with or without a miniature croissant, a bag of peanuts, and small containers of jam.
Said one passenger, “It’s inconvenient, but they are taking good care of us up here. We are in good spirits, catching up on our movies, and reading the in-flight magazines.”