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Australian wasps threaten another passenger plane, with help from COVID-19

A350 saved from peril by sharp-eyed ground crew

Australian wasps have once again brought a passenger aircraft to the brink of peril.

As The Register reported in 2016, the city of Brisbane's airport is adjacent to some mangrove swamps that are a favorite home of Sceliphron laetum – aka the "mud dauber wasp", so named for its penchant for building nests of mud.

In 2013, some representatives of the species decided the airspeed sensor of an Etihad Airways Airbus A330 was a fine place to build such a nest. Those sensors are called pitot tubes and are big enough for a wasp to get into, and small enough that a mud nest will block them. With blocked pitot tubes, aircraft can't accurately measure their airspeed or altitude.

The Etihad flight therefore aborted one take-off attempt, then made it into the air before making an emergency landing because pilots had no airspeed information. A Virgin Australia flight also returned to Brisbane after a similar incident.

Brisbane Airport's response to the wasp menace was twofold. Staff controlled the local wasp population and started putting little plastic caps on the pitot tubes of aircraft on the ground so a rogue insect couldn't get in and cause a crash.

That regime appears to have worked – until May 2022.

According to a preliminary report released today by the Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), in May 2022 a Singapore Airlines A350 almost left the gate with its little plastic caps still in place – which would have created the same bad airspeed data that endangered previous flights.

The report found some ground staff were very recent hires and had not completed all training – a probable artefact of Australian airports struggling to re-staff after COVID-19 saw air travel slashed and mass layoffs implemented.

Thankfully one member of the ground crew spotted the caps in place, alerted the pilot, and stopped the plane so the caps could be removed. The flight proceeded safely.

And just maybe that observant crew member also made this article possible: your correspondent recently flew to Brisbane and back without incident. ®

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