Wasps on a plane! How insect infestations caused an unusual amount of Heathrow flight disruptions last year

Jan 28, 2022

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While Britain is abuzz with plans to finally go on vacation this year, it has emerged some planes are literally buzzing… with insect infestations.

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An investigation by the government’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch revealed that eight planes stationed at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) were forced out of action last summer after armies of wasps and bees set up camp in their equipment.

In the two worst cases, takeoffs had to be aborted as the jets sped down the runway when vital speed measuring equipment malfunctioned.

According to the report, which focused only on a two-week period between June and July last year, six British Airways planes and a Virgin Atlantic jet were grounded after it was discovered their “pitot probes” were blocked by gooey nests and larvae.

A wasp was also spotted inside the probe of another British Airways plane.

In one of the most dramatic incidents — on June 9 — the flight crew reported a “brief smell of burning hair” wafting from the Airbus 320’s air conditioning ducts as they prepared for takeoff.

But it wasn’t until the jet began to pick up speed along the runway that the pilot noticed the aircraft’s speedometer was reading just 40 knots (46 mph) when it should have read 70 knots (80 mph).

Then, just as the copilot called “100 knots” (115 mph), the pilot realized something was awry and called “stop,” aborting takeoff moments before the passenger plane left the ground.

In a statement, British Airways said: “Safety is our highest priority and in each case, the flights returned safely to stand. Our highly skilled pilots are trained to safely perform this type of standard procedure and practice them regularly.”

Insects nesting in the crannies of planes is not new, the report said. But it is “unusual for such a spate of events to occur in such a short timeframe,” it added.

While not common, it’s not entirely out of the ordinary for insects to nest on board. (Photo by RichLegg/Getty Images)

As with so many things last year, COVID-19 was to blame as passenger planes sat unflown in airports for longer periods than usual.

Heathrow, therefore, was quieter and less polluted than normal, providing wasps and bees with “an attractive opportunity.” And the pitot tubes, which measure a plane’s speed, were an “ideal construction site for nests,” it said.

One of the species found in an Airbus 330 was the hairy-toothed small leafcutter bee, which “occurs widely in Europe, North Africa and into Central Asia but is not generally found in Britain or Ireland.”

Curiously, DNA analysis of its nest found remnants of a tree native to northeast China and sometimes called the “Tree of Heaven,” the report added, suggesting the insect may have journeyed a long way to get to Britain.

It was not clear, however, whether they flew themselves or took a plane.

The incidents, the AAIB said, are a stern reminder ​​that “the environmental response to changes in human behavior can be unpredictable and have unforeseen consequences.”

“The drive to greener aviation and urban environments will result in quieter, cleaner aircraft and less polluting airports, providing the kind of environments that prove attractive to insects such as bees and wasps,” it added.

And more insects mean more birds, which themselves pose a significant risk to takeoffs and landings.

“The high level of insect activity in 2021 could lead to a larger number of insects emerging in the spring of 2022,” the AAIB warned. “Therefore, even though traffic levels and aircraft utilization are expected to increase in 2022, the seasonal risk of insects blocking pitot probes could be significant.”

Featured photo by Cherdchai Chaivimol/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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