7 British Airways and one Virgin Atlantic aircraft were affected last summer by insect infestations at Heathrow airport. Two British Airways planes were forced to abort their flights when they were about to take off.
Problems with the Pitot Probe
According to a government report, the problem with all of these planes was an issue with their pitot probes which are part of a system that measures speed and altitude. Specifically, the pilot probe measures the air pressure exerted by the forward motion of the aircraft. The issue with the pilot probes was caused by the fact that wasp and bee nests had formed preventing it from functioning. The two British Airways planes had to abort take-off because of inaccurate speed readings on cockpit displays, resulting from the insect infestation of the probe, which can pose a serious hazard.
In terms of the aeroplane manufacturers, it appears that the problems which occurred affected both Boeing and Airbus aircraft, with 4 of both Boeing and Airbus planes being affected. So it does not appear that the manufacturing of the planes caused any difference in the infestation. It appears that more planes being grounded as a result of Covid may have resulted in a greater opportunity for insect infestation. According to the Independent, a government report also warns that this could be more significant in Spring 2022 due to a greater number of insects emerging.
Measures such as putting a pilot probe cover over the pilot probe have been recommended by the AAIB (Air Accidents Investigations Branch) when they investigated after some of the events. Initially, it was advised that pilot covers should be put onto any plane remaining in a location overnight or longer. When this measure failed, it was advised that a pilot cover be fitted onto planes stationary for at least 12 hours at a location. Neither of these steps has successfully prevented events from happening again. However, it does appear that since this measure has been taken only one further problem has occurred.
The report from the AAIB also advises more inspections by staff so that insects can be spotted before flights commence. It highlights the importance of staff not being rushed so that they can be more meticulous in their checks. In addition, it emphasises the importance of staff training and preparedness so that there is early detection of any pilot probe blockages which can be fixed prior to the flight, minimising danger and disruption. It also remarks that the reduced pollution in the area as a result of fewer flights due to Covid means that more insects were likely to be around under these hospitable conditions. Effective wildlife and habitat management for the local area at Heathrow is therefore very important. Paradoxically the move towards greener aviation with less use of fuel and more environmentally friendly planes will increase the threat caused by insects and other wildlife so therefore more work has to be done in this area.
Problems with insects and aviation are not new and even the President of the United States is not immune. According to the Independent, in June 2021, the Air Force One, The president’ exclusive aircraft, was grounded for 5 hours by insects known as ‘Cicadas’ delaying President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip to Europe. To make matters worse, a cicada landed on his neck forcing him to swat it off. It appears that the future for the aviation industry and insects are going to belong to, thorny and high profile. On a positive note, however, measures have already been taken to reduce the problem.