Snakes NOT on a plane: How Qantas keeps serpentine stowaways off of its stored A380s

Jun 3, 2021

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If you were weirded out by last week’s stowaway bat news, you’ll be glad to know that Qantas is doing all it can to keep venomous rattlesnakes off the A380 aircraft it has been storing in the desert for more than a year.

During last year’s sharp downturn in travel, thanks to COVID-19, many airlines had to put large portions of their fleets into storage. Arid desert environments are preferred, but deserts are also home to creepy-crawlies, such as snakes and scorpions, which can pose a threat to workers assigned to the stored planes’ upkeep.

Qantas engineers assigned to upkeep stored planes in California’s Mojave Desert use “wheel whackers” to scare away snakes. (Photo courtesy of Qantas)

Enter “wheel whackers,” the repurposed broom handles Qantas engineers use to bang on aircraft tires, where snakes tend to gather for warmth as they lie dormant in California’s Mojave Desert.

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“The area is well known for its feisty ‘rattlers’ who love to curl up around the warm rubber tires and in the aircraft wheels and brakes,” Tim Heywood, Qantas’ Los Angeles-based engineering manager, said in a statement. “Every aircraft has its own designated ‘wheel whacker’ … as part of the engineering kit, complete with each aircraft’s registration written on it.”

Each wheel whacker is a repurposed broom handle that bears the registration number of the plane to which it is assigned. (Photo courtesy of Qantas)

“The first thing we do before we unwrap and start any ground inspections of the landing gear in particular is to walk around the aircraft stomping our feet and tapping the wheels with a wheel whacker to wake up and scare off the snakes. That’s about making sure no harm comes to our engineers or the snakes.”

“Only then do we carefully approach each wheel and unwrap [it] before performing our pressure checks and visual inspections.”

TPG has already covered some of the ways in which airlines seal off their stored planes to prevent insects and rodents from seeking shelter, but we couldn’t resist a good “Snakes on a Plane” (or, rather, not on a plane) reference.

Stored planes, like this Qantas A380, undergo extensive maintenance, even when in storage. (Photo courtesy of Qantas)

When planes are put into storage, there are many precautions that must be taken to protect and keep them in good working order. They include less technical measures like covering the cabin seats and more crucial ones like sealing off windows and the tops of the aircraft rudders and protecting landing gear.

“Aircraft like these are highly technical, and you can’t just land [them] at the storage facility, park [them] and walk away,” Heywood said. “It’s really important that, even when in deep storage, the aircraft are maintained to the Qantas standard.”

Special attention is paid to tires and landing gear when planes are put into storage. (Photo courtesy of Qantas)

Qantas says its planes undergo weekly, biweekly and monthly maintenance that involves a series of tasks, such as removing condensation from fuel tanks, rotating tires and checking for animal nests.

As demand for air travel increases this summer, several airlines have had to bring stored aircraft back into service, a process that can take a long time. Qantas says its fleet will return to service when the demand reaches pre-pandemic levels, which could take as long as two years.

Featured photo by Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images.

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