Australian Pilots Warned To Check For Wasps In Pitot Tubes

Australia’s aviation safety watchdog, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), is flagging a now recurring hazard at Brisbane Airport and some other Queensland airports – keyhole wasp nest infestations. In an alert issued last week, CASA warns wasps nesting in and blocking pitot tubes or static ports can cause serious problems.

CASA has flagged the problem of keyhole wasps nesting at Brisbane Airport. Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation

Keyhole wasps a recurring hazard at Brisbane Airport

Late last year, Simple Flying reported on the problems keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) had caused at Australia’s third busiest airport, Brisbane. The exotic pests had set up shop around the airport and were responsible for several incidents involving large passenger jets. Brisbane Airport went so far as to commission research into the problem to find a solution. The research concluded that;

“Having arrived in Australia, the species has established in a challenging environment but one that provides all the basic requirements for population persistence and has identified a potential nesting opportunity that is both transient and mobile. In doing so, (the keyhole wasp) poses a significant risk to aviation safety.”

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Eradicating keyhole wasps around the airport wasn’t going to be possible. The researchers suggested learning to live with and manage the problem. That included covering pitot tubes or static ports and other aircraft cavities even on short turnarounds. Observers saw wasps buzzing aircraft just minutes after they pulled up at gates. One incident involving a blocked air temperature probe on an A320 happened after the aircraft only spent 30 minutes on the ground in Brisbane.

“Pitot tubes or static ports blocked (or even partially blocked) in flight can cause total loss of
airspeed or altitude indication. This is classified as hazardous. Misleading and/or
malfunction without warning can be catastrophic,” says the CASA alert of February 10.

Wasps can build nests within 30 minutes, meaning planes on short turnarounds are also at risk. Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation

CASA says cover aircraft vents and cavities

CASA notes the wasp problem seems largely confined to Brisbane Airport. But they have been sighted at Emerald Airport, 830 kilometers northwest. Emerald hosts regular QantasLink Dash 8 flights.

“As an adaptable and highly mobile species, the keyhole wasp has the potential to spread from Brisbane to other parts in Australia where the climate is suitable, including via aircraft or shared ground support equipment.”

CASA has evidence of the wasp nests completely blocking pitot tubes, fuel tank vents, and drains. The safety regulator says it receives around five incident reports annually involving both large and small aircraft relating to wasp nests. They say overseas reports detail fatal accidents attributed to wasp nests blocking the plane’s pitot tube.

Sightings of keyhole wasps have also occurred at Emerald Airport, a fair way from Brisbane. Photo: Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons

CASA recommends pilots of planes large and small install pitot/static and vent covers any time the aircraft is parked. They suggest regularly checking probe covers for damage. CASA also says in instances where the aircraft has been stored long term in the open air, inspection panels should be removed before the flight to inspect unsealed wing and fuselage cavities and any other open cavities. The safety regulator also recommends continually monitoring and removing any wasp nesting sites in the general area where aircraft are stored or maintained. They also note ground support equipment should have regular checks for signs of nests.

Finally, CASA helpfully notes that keyhole wasps are not as aggressive as paper wasps. But they will sting if you aggravate them. CASA says you should not attempt to physically handle or remove the wasps. All good to know.