A recent report revealed that an incident with insect infestations obliged several airplanes to remain on the ground at Heathrow airport in 2021. In total, 8 planes were not allowed to take off from London’s Heathrow airport between 9 June and 19 July because their ‘pitot probes’ were filled with wasp and bee nests, blocking the equipment from properly functioning.
Seven of the planes belonged to British Airways while one was owned by Virgin Atlantic, according to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AIIB).
“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 practise them regularly,” said a British Airways spokesman quoted by BBC.
“A Boeing 777-300, G-STBJ, parked on stand TA6, was found to have its right pitot probe blocked by an insect, suspected to be a bee or wasp,” reads the AIIB’s report.
The pitot probes are used to measure the difference between the stagnation pressure and the static pressure, which allow to calculate the airspeed of the aircraft. When officials realised that the plane’s equipment was clogged, they immediately aborted the take-offs warning that unreliable or blocked speed indication is a “serious hazard” and it could jeopardise the safety of the flight.
The document concluded that reduced traffic levels and human activity dueresulted in a surge of insect activity during the pandemic lockdowns. “With less aircraft activity, including less noise and jet efflux to deter the insects, the parked aircraft made an attractive opportunity, with the pitot probes providing an ideal construction site for nests,” the report states.
1. Spring 2022
Following the incident in 2021, the report warns that based on the high level of insect activity in the past year, a “larger number of insects emerging in the spring of 2022” is a scenery not to be excluded, noting that the risk of more probe blockages “could be significant”.
In order to avoid the same incident, operators were instructed to proactively monitor the aircraft and to look specifically for insects’ nests. “With the move towards ‘greener’ aviation, this may become even more important in the future,” the report asserts.
Since the occurrence, safety action has been taken by the CAA and those airline operators affected to reduce the risk of reoccurrence by introducing additional inspections and changes to the use of pitot covers.
2. Incidents with insects
There have been several occasions when insects have interfered with aircraft before, but they were rarely dangerous to passengers. In 2016, one father of two had his journey “wrecked” after he was repeatedly bitten by fleas on a British Airways flight to the US.
Coincidently, also on 9 June 2021, US President Joe Biden saw his first official trip to Europe delayed because of the appearance of a bunch of cicadas. “Watch out for the cicadas. It got me. I got one,” Biden told reporters.