The surprising way that keyhole wasps can bring down a plane

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Don't dare: a keyhole wasp when opening a Pitot probe.

Don’t dare: a keyhole wasp when opening a Pitot probe.
Image: House et al., 2020 / PLOS ONE

Keyhole wasps like to build their nests in tiny holes, including openings in devices used to measure the speed of airplanes. A recent survey shows that the problem is worse than we thought.

On November 21, 2013, an Airbus A330-200 prepare to take off from Brisbane Airport in Australia, but the pilot turned around after noticing a few abnormal speed readings. The aircraft was finally cleared for take-off about two hours later, but the abnormal speed readings returned just as the A330 was about to take off. Unable to stop, the pilots had no choice but to continue the takeoff. Once in the air, the speed differences returned, so the pilots made a mayday distress call, turned around, and landed without fail, but fully loaded.

“Upon inspection, the remains of what looked like a wasp were found in one of the aircraft’s pitot probes,” Alan House, biologist at Eco Logical Australia and lead author of a new PLOS ONE study, explained in an email. “Pitot probes are the instruments that tell pilots how fast they are going through the air, so they are essential for safe flight.”

That an insect could bring down an entire plane seems highly unlikely, but such a thing may have happened before, in February 1996, when a Boeing 757 crushed shortly after takeoff from the Dominican Republic, killing all 189 people on board. The pilots had misjudged the speed of the aircraft, due to abnormal readings of the speed of the Pitot probe. The dysfunction was blamed on a wasp, but the probe was never found, so the theory was never officially proven.

As House’s new study points out, this problem, in which wasps build nests inside pitot probes, is shockingly common. The invasive keyhole wasp (Pachodynerus nasidens) —An insect native to South and Central America and the Caribbean. These wasps build their nests in cavities, including window crevices, electrical outlets, and, you guessed it, keyholes.

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The wasp wasps have spread “presumably by sea and / or air to the southern United States and all along the Pacific to eastern Australia,” House said. These solitary insects live in tropical and subtropical environments and are around 10 to 12 millimeters long, he said.

The Brisbane airport incident in 2013 is not an isolated event. From November 2013 to April 2019, officials at this airport reported 26 wasp-related incidents, some of which involved “emergency procedures,” as the new document points out. But while airport officials have a reasonable handle on the risks posed by larger wildlife, such as birds, they still don’t fully understand this invasive threat. The new document seeks to fill this gap.

To quantify the keyhole wasp danger, House and his colleagues 3D printed several replica Pitot probes, which were placed at four strategic locations around Brisbane Airport. During a 39-month monitoring period, the team chronicled 93 cases in which bugs blocked replica probes.

The long follow-up period also allowed the team to study the conditions under which these insects preferred to build their nests.

“We found that only the keyhole wasp used probes for nesting, and all replica Pitot probes except the smallest opening [3 mm] were used, ”House said. “Nesting took place almost every month of the year, and most of the nests were concentrated in one part of the airport,” ie an area filled with grass.

That said, wasps have built more nests during the summer months, in temperatures between 75 and 88 degrees F (24 and 31 degrees C).

On how airport and airline officials should deal with the problem, House said that simple aircraft management, such as coverage of probes when planes are idle at gates, and mitigation measures population of wasps, such as traps, could “reduce the risk of an incident.” “

Additionally, he would like to see “all airlines adopt a pitot probe coverage policy” at Brisbane Airport and other airports along Australia’s east coast start monitoring this wasp, as it He is a ‘seasoned traveler, and there is every reason to expect him to scatter to other places from Brisbane. “

Eradicating wasps in Australia is currently not an option, and that is no guarantee that the insect will not return in the future.

Wow, what a terrible pain in the ass. House’s prescriptions make sense, but it’s an additional problem for the industry and another potential reason for the price increase. With climate change being what it is, the keyhole wasp aviation problem could spread to other regions, including the United States. I hate to say it, but this story won’t end anytime soon.

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