Wasps of the Pachodynerus species often slip into human habitat to house their nests. They become even more dangerous when they get near an aircraft as seen recently that has put Australian bio-controls to test.
Australian Bio-security Controls
On Monday, a tiny insect that evaded Australia’s strict biosecurity controls is multiplying and threatening plane safety at Brisbane Airport.
CNN reported that native to Central and South America and the Caribbean, the keyhole wasp first caused problems at the airport in 2013, when it forced an Etihad Airways A330 bound for Singapore to turn back minutes into the flight.
Several reports of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) have traced back incidents and abandoned takeoffs to “mud-dauber wasp activity”, especially at Brisbane Airport (BNE). The ATSB indicates that from 2008 to 2018 at least four of the 15 incidents at Brisbane airport where one of the pitot probes had a partial or total blockage were attributed to insect nests, aerotime.aero said.
Once on the ground, maintenance workers found the pilot’s pitot tube — the hollow instrument on the outside of the plane that measures airspeed — was almost completely blocked by mud, according to a report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
For wasps, pitot tubes are the perfect cavity in which to construct a high-speed nest — the Etihad plane was only on the tarmac for two hours before the aborted flight, CNN reported.
“We have anecdotal reports from ground crew at Brisbane that a plane can have arrived at the gate and within a matter of two or three minutes, a wasp will be flying around the nose of the plane having a look at the probe,” said Alan House, an ecologist from Eco Logical Australia.
House worked with experts from Brisbane Airport, Australian airline Qantas and the environmental consultancy Ecosure to produce one of the world’s first studies on the impact of wasps on pitot tubes. Commissioned by Brisbane Airport Corporation, it was published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Researchers say that without proper management there’s a risk the wasps could travel to other Australian airports — and even nearby countries with the right semi-tropical conditions for them to thrive.
“When we did some background research we realized that this wasn’t just an inconvenience, that you just had to clean these things out and swat the wasps away; this could actually lead to major accidents,” House said.
Wasp Trouble: Not First Time
Over the 39 months of observation, 93 instances of fully blocked probes were recorded. The probes of the Boeing 737, whose diameter was the largest reviewed, represented 56.3% of all blockages. Then came the A330 pitot tube, corresponding to 19.3% of blockages. The smallest probe, from an Embraer ERJ90, was the least affected, aerotime.aero said.
Following the recurring problem, a study was launched by the consulting firm Eco Logical Australia. The experiment took place between 2016 and 2019 at Brisbane airport and saw researchers create 3D-printed mock pitot tubes of various dimensions corresponding to different aircraft to observe the behavior of the Pachodynerus Nasidens, also known as the keyhole wasp.
“We hope this research will bring attention to a little known but serious issue for air travel in tropical and sub-tropical regions,” Alan House of Eco Logical and his colleagues explain in their study. “Having found its way across the Pacific Ocean, there is no reason to doubt that it could spread to other parts of Australia. The consequences of not managing this clever but dangerous pest could be substantial.”
Pitot probe covers are already in use in Brisbane due to the high level of insect activity. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) states that wasps can build a nest in an uncovered pitot probe in less than 20 minutes. But as highlighted in the study, the problem could spread, as the species is invasive. Originally native to Central and South America and the Caribbean, the keyhole wasp was first identified in Brisbane in 2010. Researchers call for further control and eradication measures.