After executing a dramatic u-turn in the sky over west Mayo, the pilot of the volcanic dust test plane sped away in a south to south easterly direction. Photo: Noel Byrne
Monday, 26 April 2010 15:10
For days on end Irish skies had been empty. They had been purged of planes by the dirty plume of ash, smoke and gases belching from the belly of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano about 1,400 kilometres to the north.
Then, at around 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday evening, April 20, a magic moment. A fleck of silver rode high in the blue dome of the western sky scribbling a north south fuel contrail parallel with the Mayo coastline below.
It was the first airliner to reach for the skies in these parts for almost a week.
Hundreds, possibly thousands on the ground below watched grateful for this first indication that the crisis caused by volcanic ash was nearly over and that the skies over northern Europe would soon return to normal.
Tuesday's flight over west Mayo was undoubtedly a test flight of some sort. The plane involved surged north before making a dramatic u-turn and speeding south again, possibly to Shannon or, more likely, Heathrow.
One friend, who is learned in aviation matters, informed me afterwards that the aircraft had been sent aloft by some august body known as the British Atmospheric Survey and that it had been "doing elliptical circles in the sky" over the west of Ireland before being recalled to its base in Britain.
Whatever the reason for the flight, there can be no doubt that the sight of the plane against the evening light over Mayo sparked quite a few conversations over the following days.
Amateur photographer Noel Byrne happened to be in the Mayo Peace Park with a contingent of retired pilots from the U.K. when the jet circled overhead.
Noel took the accompanying splendid photograph just after the aircraft had completed its sharp u-turn.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Noel, a presenter with Castlebar community Radio (CRC), said.
The former airmen were just as excited as locals to see aircraft activity again after the long lull caused by the spouting volcano.
Indeed, it inspired a number to recall exploits for Noel of flying through flak in World War Two.
One had even to detour around an eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia at one stage - an incident which made him extremely well versed about the dangers of aircraft flying anywhere near cloud caused by volcanic activity.
Meanwhile, another Noel, Noel O'Neill of Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society, has informed readers of the castlebar.ie website that the recent cloud of volcanic ash emanating from Iceland is not the first such event to affect Ireland.
He says that tephra (volcanic ash particles) were found some years ago during excavations near the Céide Fields in north Mayo.
Analysis of the samples showed that they were glass particles from the Hekla volcano in southern Iceland. According to Noel, the depth they were found at in the bog indicated that theey were deposited there 7,000 years ago following a massive eruption.