There are hints that a jet ice age is about to be confirmed by aircraft and aero engine makers as investigations into the crash landing of a British Airways Boeing 777 at London’s Heathrow airport move closer to making recommendations about long flights in very cold air.

Asked if extreme upper atmospheric cold temperatures could require new safety measures the chief investigator for the British Air Accident Investigation Branch, David King says, “it is a possibility.”

King confirmed that environmental conditions on polar flights and other matters affecting fuel management during such operations were involved in the continuing inquiry. He was speaking after sources in the investigation body told media that a set of ultra cold temperature safeguards that could extend beyond the particular type of jet and engine involved in the January crash could be issued to the airline industry in coming weeks.

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The British Airways flight from Beijing remained for hours in air colder than -75 C before making a nearly continuous idle thrust approach to London, a technique pioneered by Qantas among others in so called “gliding” approaches with minimal fuel burn. But when it came time to increase the engine power immediately before landing both engines choked within seconds of each other, causing the BA jet to crash short of the end of the intended runway.

The aircraft was wrecked, but only minor injuries were reported among those on board. Other aircraft in the vicinity of the BA flight across northern Siberia encountered the same ultra cold conditions and dropped to lower, warmer levels at the cost of higher fuel consumption, while it stuck to its course.

There has been a rising incidence of diversions due to extremely cold air and related problems for long haul flights in recent years including turn backs by aircraft approaching the north pole.

An ice age for jets has been predicted by the models for global warming. Global warming is caused by the greenhouse effect trapping radiant energy in a blanket like layer of carbon dioxide at the top of the lower atmosphere, and just below where most jets fly, instead of letting it escape back into space.

This deprives the upper atmosphere, generally above 33,000 feet, of the heating effect of that energy passing up and through it.

As global warming increases, upper air cooling is predicted to worsen, and major changes in how fuel is circulated and heated during flight are being considered by Airbus and Boeing.

While the UK crash highlighted issues with the Boeing 777 and its Rolls-Royce engines, Airbus has been making specific cold flight recommendations for its long range trans polar A345s since 2004 when that type began the world’s longest daily non-stop flights across the north polar routes between Singapore and Newark.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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