St Elmo’s Fire While Flying – Flight Into Volcanic Ash

Stunning video of the British Airways Flight 9 Jakarta Incident!

Story UPDATED on January 14, 2020.

Have you witnessed harmless St. Elmo’s Fire, electrical discharge in the air while you were flying? In these days of sporadic volcanic eruptions, however, the thought of St. Elmo’s fire caused by volcanic activity brings back memories of the terrifying British Airways Flight 9 Jakarta incident in 1982.

When can St. Elmo’s Fire happen while flying?

St. Elmo’s Fire occasionally occurs when you fly around a highly electrically charged thunderstorm area, or in an area around an erupting volcano.

St. Elmo’s Fire while flying, caused by accidental flight into volcanic ash! (stunning video)

The story behind this famous documentary of British Airways flight 9’s flight into volcanic ash caused a St. Elmo’s Fire reaction and a display like we have never before witnessed. You can read the story further below.

British Airways flight 9, June 24, 1982. YouTube/Smithsonian.

But first, let’s find out what causes St. Elmo’s Fire, whether you are on the ground, at sea, or inflight:

What is St. Elmo’s Fire?

St. Elmo's Fire electrical masts, st. elmo's fire while flying, flight into volcanic ash
An electrical power line St. Elmo’s Fire. Photo: Wikimedia.

St. Elmo’s fire is a type of luminous plasma discharge from a pointed object. This electrical discharge is called a corona discharge. It occurs spontaneously and naturally in fields that carry a high voltage.

St. Elmo’s Fire is a completely harmless natural phenomenon. It is widely known that St. Elmo’s Fire is associated with thunderstorms and volcanic activity. 

Unlike the common sight of cockpit window static discharge phenomena St. Elmo’s Fire is a very rare sight seldom seen by anyone, including pilots. A passenger would be most likely to see it on the airplane wing! Some pilots describe cockpit window static discharge as being St. Elmo’s Fire. That assumption, however, is incorrect.

It typically looks like a beam of bright blue light coming out from a pointed object, such as the nose cone of an airplane. The color results from the mainly nitrogen and oxygen which our atmosphere consists of.

As a matter of fact, the entire airframe of your airplane can also be subject to a general glowing discharge from St. Elmo’s fire.

Where did the name “St. Elmo’s Fire” originate?

The glow was named after St. Erasmus, who is the patron saint for sailors. The phenomena were not understood at the time, evoking folklore and fear of the unknown among sailors of the time.

My personal experience with St. Elmo’s Fire

flight into volcanic ash, airplane wingtip St. Elmo's Fire, st. elmo's fire while flying
Airplane wingtip St. Elmo’s Fire

My personal St. Elmo’s Fire experience occurred above the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, in 1989. There was strong thunderstorm activity in the area. I was flying a DC-10, on the way to Honolulu.

Suddenly a pointed glow of blueish light appeared on the airplane nose cone. A few seconds later the light intensified and stayed lit like a flame for several minutes.

Then, as quick as it appeared the light disappeared, as the discharge finished its cycle.

Unfortunately, this was long before the invention of cell phones and digital cameras. None of us three pilots carried cameras at the time, to document our sight.

St. Elmo's fire old ship
St. Elmo’s Fire.
NOAA Photo Library, Dr. W.F.M. Zimmerman – 1860.
St. Elmo's fire modern ship
A modern ship with St. Elmo’s Fire in the mast. NOAA.

The life-cycle of St. Elmo’s Fire

Once the “light show” begins St. Elmo’s fire stays around the object until it dissipates. The phenomenon is being discharged through the airplane static wicks. It typically lasts from a few seconds to minutes. 

The light-effect is caused by a difference in voltage between the charged object and the surrounding air. 

If the voltage between the two gets up to around 30,000 Volts per centimeter of space the electrical energy being discharged causes the light effect. When that happens you could also hear a hissing sound. The reaction from St. Elmos Fire literally tears apart air molecules.

St. Elmo's Fire military refueling
St. Elmo’s Fire during military in-flight refueling. Photo: USAF.

Pointed objects

Objects that are pointed can discharge at much lower levels of voltage than non-pointed objects. The airplane wingtip, the nose cone of the airplane, the pointed mast of a building, or the mast of a ship can all produce a St. Elmo’s Fire.

British Airways Flight 9, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1982

flight into volcanic ash
British Airways Flight 9 Jakarta Incident. Screenshot: YouTube.

Now back to the story behind the video presented earlier:

flight into volcanic ash, British Airways BA9, flight into volcanic ash
The incident happened after passing Jakarta, en route to Perth, Australia

British Airways Flight 9 experienced a quadruple engine flameout as a result of volcanic ash! A side-effect of the incident was the generation of the St. Elmo’s Fire effect.

Regardless, it’s probably the most powerful and combined St. Elmo’s Fire and flight into volcanic ash-experience anyone has ever experienced in the air.

The video clip described the turn of events that led to an almost catastrophic accident. The presentation does not illustrate how it ended.

But you can rest assured that the plane landed safely, but with serious damage to the engines, airplane body, and windows. People were lucky to walk away from this unhurt.

The pilots did an excellent job, followed emergency procedures, and made perfect decisions leading to a successful conclusion to the incident.

Great progress in volcanic ash avoidance procedures, detection and reporting have been made since the British Airways Flight 9 incident in 1982. Therefore, an incident like this one is not ever likely to happen again.   

flight into volcanic ash, engine damage BA9 volcanic ash
Actual picture from the volcanic ash engine damage from British Airways Flight 9. Photo: British Airways.

Have you ever seen St. Elmo’s Fire while flying? Have you ever been inflight while volcanic ash or volcanic activity was happening in the area where you flew? If so, please tell us about your experiences!

Featured Image: The actual British Airways Boeing 747 from the Jakarta incident. Photo: Wikimedia.

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What was the British Airways Flight 9 Jakarta Incident?

On June 24, 1982 British Airways Flight 9 accidentally flew into volcanic ash near Mount Galunggung in West java, Indonesia. As a result the Boeing 747-236B, registration number G-BDXH experienced a flameout of all four engines from the volcanic ash. The incident is often referred to as the Jakarta incident. In addition to the flameout the airplane also experienced a St. Elmo’s Fire light phenomenon, never before seen on a flight.

What is St. Elmo’s Fire?

St. Elmo’s Fire is a type of luminous plasma discharge from a pointed object. This electrical discharge is called a corona discharge. It occurs spontaneously and naturally in fields that carry a high voltage. St. Elmo’s Fire is completely harmless and often associated with areas of thunderstorms or volcanic ash activity.

St. Elmo’s fire can occur on the ground, at sea, and in the air while flying.

Is St. Elmos Fire the same as an airplane cockpit window static discharge?

No, static discharge from an airplane cockpit window is different from St. Elmo’s Fire while flying.

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