The VACT is being developed by NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL) under the auspices of the FAA Product Development Team for Aviation Forecasts and Quality Assessment. Funds are being provided by the FAA Aviation Weather Research Program. VACT is based on the FX-Connect interactive Java-based workstation developed by FSL.
The VACT will focus on Alaska because about 50,000 flights traverse North Pacific air routes each year. On average, the active volcanoes in the Northern Pacific (41 in Alaska, 29 in Kamchatka, and 30 in the Kurile Islands) emit ash that can impact those flight routes several times a month. And during the last two decades, more than 100 jet aircraft have sustained damage in excess of $250 million dollars due to volcanic ash (source: Volcanic Ash Hazards to Aviation; USGS, Alaska Volcano Observatory). At least seven encounters have resulted in temporary engine failure, with three aircraft losing power from all engines. Detecting and tracking volcanic ash are critical for the safe operation of aircraft. Airspace capacity is also affected by volcanic ash. Engine failures have occurred as far as 600 miles from a volcano, and damage to engines and avionics has been reported as far as 1800 miles. Existing transport models of ash plumes are very conservative and often result in airspace being blocked unnecessarily.