Airline Crews Battle Rattlesnakes Squatting in Grounded Fleet of Planes

The long-term storage of Qantas planes in California's Mojave Desert is creating new, unexpected hazards for engineers to tackle: rattlesnakes and scorpions have infiltrated the fleet, making their home in wheels and tires.

According to a Thursday update in the Qantas News Room, protecting aircraft from invading critters like birds and insects is nothing new for engineers. But the burgeoning rattlesnake season in California has created a unique problem, forcing engineers to add "a new pre-inspection procedure" to their typical maintenance routines.

The fleet, which is in "deep storage" until air travel returns to its pre-pandemic levels, is being stored in Victorville, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, because of the area's high heat and low humidity. Unfortunately, these conditions are also conducive to desert pests like rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Tim Heywood, Qantas Manager for Engineering in Los Angeles, spoke on the issue to the Qantas News Room: "The area is well known for its feisty 'rattlers' who love to curl up around the warm rubber [tires] and in the aircraft wheels and brakes." He added each aircraft is now equipped with a "wheel whacker"—which is actually just a "repurposed broom handle"—to scare away any reptilian or arachnid squatters.

"The first thing we do before we unwrap and start any ground inspections of the landing gear ... is to walk around the aircraft stomping our feet and tapping the wheels with a wheel whacker to wake up and scare off the snakes. That's about making sure no harm comes to our engineers or the snakes," explained Heywood. "Only then do we carefully approach each wheel and unwrap them before performing our pressure checks and visual inspections."

Qantas Planes in Melbourne
Qantas planes waiting at the Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, 2014. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

He told the Qantas News Room they've "encountered a few rattle snakes and also some scorpions, but the wheel whacker does its job and they scuttle off."

While rattlesnakes and scorpions have always been a part of the desert landscape, they've only taken up residence in the A380s since the start of the pandemic. According to Heywood, the situation is merely "another sign of how strange the past year has been." Typically, "these A380s would rarely spend more than a day on the ground when they were in service," making their long-term desert stay rather unusual. As the pandemic continues to rage worldwide, the future of global air travel still remains uncertain: by the Qantas News Room's estimate, it "could still be two years" until we reach normal, pre-pandemic levels of air travel.

In the meantime, Heywood and his team are working to keep the aircraft in tip-top shape, regardless of whatever creatures they may encounter. "Aircraft like these are highly technical and you can't just land it at the storage facility, park it and walk away," explained Heywood. Rather, the planes must undergo "weekly, fortnightly and monthly inspections" that check everything from fuel tanks to tire pressure.

Heywood added he and his team will continue to bravely face any rattlesnakes that come their way, until, that is, the planes are cleared to fly once again. "We can hang up our wheel whackers at that point," he said.