Baggage delays, flight cancellations, pilots with COVID, drones at airports – there are many ways your flight can be disrupted, and Mother Nature has her own special way of bringing hassle to the flying experience. Especially through interventions from the animal kingdom.
Deer, reindeer, sheep and kangaroos are known to roam the walkways. In 2020, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 collided with a bear while landing at Yakutat Airport in southeast Alaska. Stranger still, another AA plane departing from Juneau, the state capital, was hit by a fish. An eagle dropped its catch as the plane went under it, hitting it behind the cockpit window. That’s Alaska for you, and while we don’t have bears, right here there are so many more ways nature can alter your flight.
A mud builder wasp can bring down a plane
Pitot tubes are narrow metal cylinders that measure the airspeed of an aircraft. In effect, they are the speedometer of the plane and they are important. An aircraft with insufficient airspeed risks stalling, while an aircraft traveling too fast risks running out of fuel or overshooting the runway.
Pitot tubes are mounted on the exterior of the aircraft, usually under the cabin or along the wing, and are an ideal nest for keyhole wasps, an invasive species native to Central and South America that has found a happy home in Australia.
The problem is acute at Brisbane airport, where ground crews have begun covering pitot tubes while the plane is at rest. Even in a short change, keyhole wasps have been known to molt and start importing mud to build a nest, and that can cause the pitot tube to malfunction.
A nest of keyhole wasps is believed to have caused the crash of a Boeing 757 operated by Birgenair after it departed Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic in 1996. One of the plane’s three Pitot tubes was blocked, but the air trapped inside the tube expanded as pressure increased. as the aircraft climbed, causing sensors to indicate airspeed at almost 300 km/h. Based on that false reading, the autopilot slowed down and raised the nose, the aircraft stalled and crashed into the sea with the loss of all on board.
In the US alone, the FAA records more than 10,000 aircraft bird strikes each year. Worldwide, they cost the aviation industry more than $1.5 billion a year. In 2008, a Ryanair flight from Frankfurt to Rome was hit by multiple bird strikes while landing, causing so much damage that the eight-month-old Boeing 737 was written off. The most famous bird strike of all occurred in January 2009 when a US Airways Airbus A320 ran into a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from New York’s La Guardia Airport, causing both engines to fail and a spectacular landing in the Hudson River from the city.
Airports employ various methods to deter birds, including propane cannons, the same ones used to deter birds from crops. At Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah, pigs are used to destroy the airport’s California gull nesting habitat and border collies are used as bird catchers at Southwest Florida International Airport. Some of the world’s busiest airports have advanced radar systems that detect flocks of birds, and aircraft manufacturers test their aircraft for bird strikes.
True story: Canada’s Aerospace Research Center has chicken cannons, long-barreled guns that shoot bird carcasses at aircraft windows, fuselages, and even spinning engine blades to test your vulnerability. Using compressed air, the cannons can fire a dead chicken at speeds in excess of 1,000 km/h. In the 1970s, the cabins of the Boeing 757 and 767 were redesigned after a 4-pound chicken fired at 400 mph pierced the skin of the plane.
Erupting volcanoes spew clouds of fine ash that can clog aircraft engines, even at a cruising altitude of 11,000 meters. It’s a lesson learned the hard way.
In 1982, a British Airways Boeing 747 was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth when it flew through a cloud of volcanic ash spewed by the eruption of Mount Galunggung, southeast of Jakarta. Within a couple of minutes all four engines failed. The crew put the aircraft on a glide, intending to make a risky water landing if the altitude was insufficient to clear the 3,500-meter mountains along Java’s southern coast, but at 4,100 meters they were able to restart one of the engines. , followed by the other three. The aircraft then landed safely in Jakarta, although the windshield was opaque as the ash cloud sprayed it with sand, necessitating a difficult instrument landing with no way of measuring altitude.
Further investigation found that the ash cloud did not register on weather radar, which was designed to detect moisture in clouds.
These days, authorities are rushing to close the airspace in the immediate vicinity of volcanic eruptions. In 2010, Europe endured a month of air travel chaos when the Icelandic volcano Eyjajallajokul erupted, sending a plume of volcanic ash more than nine kilometers into the sky. In 2018, thousands of Australians were stranded in Bali when Mount Agung erupted and the island closed its international airport.