Aviation News

June 19, 2009

15 Hours for Nothing: After Reaching Alaska, Newark-Tokyo Flight Turns Back to Newark

Photo of the passenger-viewable flight path map aboard Continental flight 9 on Tuesday, June 16.
Photo of the passenger-viewable flight path map aboard Continental flight 9 on Tuesday, June 16.
Photo of the passenger-viewable flight path map aboard Continental flight 9 on Tuesday, June 16.

Photo of the passenger-viewable flight path map aboard Continental flight 9 on Tuesday, June 16.

Over 15 hours after departing Newark for Tokyo, passengers aboard Continental flight 9 on Tuesday were right back where they started: New Jersey.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened, including a rumor that the 777-200ER’s engines shut down for 12 minutes (!) as a result of volcanic ash ingestion.

Here is what we do know:

Flight 9 departed Newark at approximately 11:30am on Tuesday, and proceeded on a customary eastern US to Japan route, taking her over central and northwestern Canada and southern Alaska before beginning her curve to the south for Japan. As the plane flew over the Aleutian Islands, rather than continue a south-westerly track to Japan, the plane…turned around! After a stop at Cleveland for fuel, CO9 returned to Newark at 2:30am Wednesday morning!

The culprit: the eruption of an ash-belching volcano called Sarychev Peak on the remote islands between northern Japan and Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula.

A passenger posted the following account:

pilot mentioned that one plane had serious trouble with the plume (lost power on the engines for 12 minutes?)… also some shock about the order to return to nyc. (which is based on the fact that continental didn’t have hubs out west that could reticket people, etc and the staff couldn’t refuel in alaska because of going over to many hours).

Turns out the flight on Sunday diverted to Anchorage before proceeding over the Pacific, but for whatever reason Tuesday’s crew tried to go for the gold. Flight 7 on Tuesday, IAH-NRT, also made it to Alaska only to return to Houston, for a 12 hour useless flight. The rest of the week, most flights between the US and northern Asia have taken a more southerly route, many stopping at Anchorage or Honolulu to pick up extra fuel. Wednesday’s CO9 stopped at the airline’s Houston hub to drink up for the extra flight time of the straight-across-the-Pacific route.

Volcanic prediction being a very inexact science, of course, there is no word on when the eruption of Sarychev Peak might end. Despite the close proximity to these important North America-Asia air routes, there has been little formal reporting of this event since it began on June 12th. The only airline to issue a formal advisory about the potential route disruptions has been Air Canada. NASA’s Earth Observatory has some stunning photographs of the eruption, with thick brown ash seen shooting well above the atmosphere’s normal white clouds.