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Training Tip: Wasps in the cockpitTraining Tip: Wasps in the cockpit

What do parasite drag, engine failure, and a dead airspeed indicator have in common?

Making sure your airplane is bug free ranges from cleaning the leading edges to carefully inspecting air vents, the engine compartment, and more. Photo by Mike Collins.

In some cases, an identical cause: insects—or insect parts—lodged in places where they can make trouble.

Now that we’ve reached peak bug season—as this is being written, a cicada chorus is buzzing loudly nearby—it’s time to review this element of summer flying for the sake of aerodynamic efficiency and emergency preparedness.

Aerodynamic efficiency?

In June when the Air Race Classic was concluding at Maine’s Eastern Slope Regional Airport, a crowd stood at the ramp, swatting away the odd mosquito, waiting for the race teams to appear. From Cirrus SR20s to Cessna Skyhawks, racers arrived until the place was, yes, a beehive of activity. Observers noticed that the first chore many racers tackled while having their aircraft refueled was to wipe down the wings’ leading edges, removing bug-collision remnants. (Contrast that with the airplane you rent. Does the wing’s leading edge have a fine sandpapery look and feel when you come out to fly? Is the windscreen dotted with debris from deceased Diptera?)

Some observers theorized that arriving to an audience including media and race judges was why some pilots wanted to tidy up their ships, but I demurred. These pilots were racers; they no doubt regarded anything that slows them down as the enemy. If you doubt the aerodynamic implications of Anisopodidae, AOPA was a fly on the wall and reported on NASA’s research.

Even a clean airplane can swat a pilot after a stealthy insect invasion. Engine-failure accidents have numerously been attributed to bug byproducts blocking fuel or air flows—so be sure to climb to a safe altitude promptly with a plan for where you’ll land if trouble hatches.

Blocked pitot tubes are often wasps’ work—a potentially stinging scenario. Bug your instructor to give you practice flying the traffic pattern without reference to your airspeed indicator. (Perhaps the CFI needs some practice in this skill first.)

Ever have a bee fly in your car window as you hurtled down the highway? Distracting. After a 2010 motorglider accident in Oregon, the National Transportation Safety Board noted that a wasp nest was “found in the cockpit air inlet, and it is conceivable that the wasps were disturbed and entered the cockpit after takeoff.”

Drilling home the key point: An insect in an aircraft system could escape detection, leaving only pilot skill to repel the emergency

Are you itching to share a story on this subject? Make a beeline for AOPAHangar.com.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Emergency, Loss of Control, Student
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