The April 14th eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (say that 5 times fast) in Iceland has become a visually powerful and compelling image, a reminder of nature’s power to upend the careful planning and clever technologies of the lifeforms who only think that they have the Earth under their control. The ongoing blast has launched tons of ash and silica into the upper atmosphere, carried up by hot air and then out by strong winds over the continent of Europe.
Apart from the potential dangers of acid rain and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, this fine airborne powder wrecks havoc on airplanes: clouding vision, clogging sensors and most dangerously, powered glass known as silica can melt in the heat of a jet engine, fusing and jamming turbines in flight, causing planes to drop out of the sky.
The delay that has resulted from the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption is approaching the longest since the development of air travel, grounding civilian and military flights alike. The resulting economic damage will be massive, but pales in comparison to the effects on real lives and livelihoods that now depend on the speed that flight provides. In these extraordinary circumstances, lets take a look at which extraordinary characters, and their planes, can be called on to brave the ash cloud on a hypothetical mission of mercy.
First Appearance: The X-Men #1 (1963)
Aircraft of Choice: The Blackbird (aka the X-Jet). A heavily modified SR-71, the Blackbird is the mode of transport of choice for the X-Men when teleporting mutants are unavailable. It's equipped with extensive stealth technology to help the uncanny heroes travel the globe in a clandestine manner, saving a world that hates and fears them.
Chance of Success: Poor. Cyclops has decades of experience behind the stick and thanks to his father, being a pilot is in his blood. Against the ash cloud however, his optic blasts will have no effect other than shattering his cockpit’s windscreen, inundating him with toxic powder. Unless he can quickly climb above the cloud, it will clog his engines and put his claim to have “survived more plane crashes than any other mutant,” to the ultimate test.
First Appearance: DC Showcase #22 (1959)
Aircraft of Choice: X-44 Manta. As a test pilot, Capt. Hal Jordan of the United States Air Force has access to some of the most cutting edge aircraft in the world, including the X-44 Manta, an experimental evolution of the F-22 Raptor. Thought to be purely conceptual after its funding was cut in 2000, the Manta secretly lives on via black bag projects and possible alien influence. The Manta’s tailwing-free design relies on 3D thrust vectoring to give it superior agility and a higher payload capacity.
Chance of Success: Variable. While jets like the Manta would be susceptible to the dangers of the ash just like any other, the difference rests in the skill and abilities of its pilot. As one of comic-doms ‘men without fear’ Hal Jordan not only has the guts to take to the skies in unproven aircraft, but to do so with out his Green Lantern Power Ring, the most powerful weapon in the universe. If Hal, as is his tradition, leaves it at home, he’s likely not going to make it. However, by wielding the ring he can create any number of constructs to aid him in his flight, from a simple protective shield to a giant green HEPA filter that can fly in front of him to clean the air.
First Appearance: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Aircraft of Choice: Colonial Viper Mark II. The Mark II Vipers were the primary space superiority star fighters of the Colonies during the First Cylon War. In the hands of a capable pilot, these craft were highly maneuverable and completely lethal in deep space, and could also perform admirably in atmosphere.
Chance of Success: Moderate. The Viper is primarily a spacecraft, and therefore requires additional fuel, and in turn, power to compensate for the reduced lift that its short wings provide. However, due to its capacity for reaching other planets, it has been designed for operation in ‘alien’ atmospheres, which could allow it to survive inside the ash cloud. ‘Could’ being the operative word, as it would take a daring/crazy pilot to every try it, a role that Kara Thrace plays with great pride. She has some experience flying in dangerous cloud environments, too, but that didn't turn out perfectly for her.
Callsign: Rogue Leader
First Appearance: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Aircraft of Choice: Incom T-65 X-wing. The iconic craft of the Rebel Alliance, the quad-winged space fighter was designed for maximum survivability. Very badly outnumbered by the forces of the Galactic Empire, the Rebels needed a fighter that could go, do the most damage, and come back with its most valuable resource intact: its pilot. While the Empire’s TIE Fighters didn’t even have internal atmospheres, let alone deflector shields, the X-wings had both, plus hyperspace jump engines for quick hit and fade attacks.
Chance of Success: Good. If you look up the word ‘survivor’ in the Galactic Codex or in a Jedi Holocron, it would just read “See: Antilles, Wedge.” As a member of Red Squadron, Wedge was instrumental in the destruction of both Death Stars, one of only four craft to survive the first attack and delivering the final blow personally to the second, as well as being the first to successfully topple an AT-AT using just a harpoon and tow cable. Most remarkably, he survived countless battles despite a total lack of Force affinity. The combination of his skill and his craft’s durability gives him the high ground over the volcanic ash cloud of Eyjafjallajokull, and no one with the high ground can be defeated.
Callsign: Star Fox
First Appearance: Star Fox (1993)
Aircraft of Choice: Arwing Spacefighter. A product of minimalist design and superior engineering, the Arwing Spacefighter is the primary weapon of the Star Fox Team, a PMC for hire in the anthropomorphic Lylat System. Powered by an experimental gravity manipulation engine called the G-Diffuser that provides thrust, lift (in atmospheres) and limited shielding, the Arwing is light years ahead of any other craft in the galaxy.
Chance of Success: Excellent. The Arwing’s lack of traditional jet-type propulsion alleviates the threat of molten glass in its engines. And as long as there is a giant rabbit telling Fox McCloud to perpetually do barrel rolls, the G-Diffuser’s shielding effect should keep the Arwing clear of debris…at least on the exterior, since the effect of hours of dizzying spins and a big lunch might do to the upholstery.