It was a beautiful early spring day. As I walked across the ramp to the borrowed Aztec I planned to fly that morning, the skies were blue and the birds were chirping.
The birds were also building nests – in airplanes – and, specifically, in the airplane I intended to fly. I was accustomed to the twittering cacophony of the starlings who nest every year in the apparently (and sadly) abandoned Aerostar assigned to a nearby tiedown. But, since we were always careful to leave the Aztec with cowl flaps closed and engine/ air intake ports plugged with netting, I felt confident that the starlings would understand there was no room in the intake, so to speak, and fly on.
No such luck.
The first clue was a large and pronounced spatter of, um, waste matter under the right engine nacelle. Ugh.
The second clue was finding bits of straw threaded through the netting that was supposed to block off the air intake. Uh-oh.
The confirmation came when I opened the oil filler port atop the right engine nacelle. Instead of the clean (okay, oil-stained) metal I hoped to see, there was nothing but nest – and it was everywhere. I was simply astonished, first by the fact that this determined bird had made it through the tightly packed netting even once, and even more by realizing how many times the bird had threaded her way through to build a nursery of this magnitude.
Happily for me, Mother Bird wasn’t around to witness the destruction of her hard work, or the disappearance of the two small eggs she had deposited atop the right engine crankcase. Happily for everyone else, the Aztec‘s end-of-ramp tiedown spot spared them from hearing my snarls of frustration during the nearly two-hour clean-up process.
Although the Aztec incident was the most annoying encounter I have had with nesting birds, it was by no means the first or only one. One hot July day, for example, a flight review client and I spent more than an hour opening his airplane’s inspection panels in order to evacuate a pair of birds who were scoping out the tail section as a possible summer home. Fortunately, we discovered the activity before our feathered friends could clog the control cables with straw or cause corrosion with bird waste.
Birds aren’t the only creatures who see your airplane as a real estate bargain. Bees and other small insects can find it attractive as well. Last spring, for instance, I found that a small, but determined, band of yellow jackets had built a honeycomb structure where the aileron attaches to the wing. While the yellow jackets’ nest did not pose the same kind of problems created by a bird nest in the engine compartment or fuselage, I narrowly escaped being stung during my preflight inspection. Stings are never fun, but if you or any of your passengers are allergic to bee venom, be especially careful to look before you put your hand in a spot that might have been invaded.
I have also known bees to invade the cockpit and cabin area. Several summers ago, a very large bee flew into my face just as I lifted off from a runway in coastal North Carolina. This “bee-stly” stowaway had been hiding behind the magnetic compass of my Cessna 182 until I rotated for takeoff. It was tough to quell the flail impulse during the initial surprise, but my first flight instructor’s constant reminders to “fly-the-airplane-first” paid off. It was clear that the bee was perfectly capable of flying itself, so I calmed down and concentrated on flying the airplane to a safe altitude. Once established in cruise, I enlisted the help of a handy sectional chart to put the bee out of my misery.
If you spend much time around general aviation airports, you have probably had, or heard of, similar experiences. Many pilots understandably perceive birds and bees as pesky and persistent creatures and, where airplanes are concerned, they are. Consequently, prevention strategies and careful preflight inspections are probably the best defenses that a pilot or aircraft owner can muster. Here are a few tips:
Prevention: At any time, but especially during nesting season, leaving any opening on your airplane uncovered or unplugged is tantamount to leaving your house key in the front door lock. Preventing winged squatters from taking up residence in your wings, especially if your airplane lives outside, requires that you “lock up” by plugging every possible path to the engine compartment, fuselage, pitot-static ports, and other openings. Strategies include
- Closing the cowl flaps (if installed) when securing the aircraft
- Installing custom-fit plugs on the air intake ports
- Using a pitot tube cover
- Blocking tailcone openings (e.g., those on a Mooney)
- Installing aircraft covers (including wing covers)
- Using “bird spikes” or other commercially-available devices to discourage birds from perching on any part your aircraft
Preflight: In the movie Jurassic Park, one of the scientists observed that “nature will find a way.” This caution certainly applies to birds and bees, whose persistence can overcome the most determined pilot’s efforts at prevention. Consequently, your preflight inspection should be especially thorough during nesting season. As you approach the aircraft:
- Look for tell-tale signs of bird activity (e.g., excessive waste, bits of straw or other nesting material, or, of course, numerous birds perching on your plane).
- Look before you put your hand in any spot that might be occupied by bees or other insects.
- Listen closely. I once knew to look for the birds in the tail section only because I heard them fluttering and thumping around inside.
- Inspect the cockpit and cabin area for possible stowaways before launching, especially if the doors or windows have been open during your preflight inspection.
Whale Watching. Even if you live near the ocean, it’s a safe bet that you will never have to worry about whales invading your airplane. Whales, on the other hand, sometimes have to worry about having their space invaded – illegally – by aerial sightseers in general aviation aircraft. Since the beginning of the year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has documented several private aircraft off the coasts of Georgia and Florida circling in close proximity to right whales, which are a critically endangered species in the baleen whale family.
Here’s the rule. We pilots aren’t keen on having wildlife invade our space, and the law requires us to return the favor when it comes to operating in the vicinity of certain animals. You are probably already aware of the requirement to fly at least 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL) over wildlife preserves depicted on sectional aeronautical charts. What you may not know, though, is that if you fly near any place that right whales are known to live, the law (Title 50 Code of Federal Regulations section 224.103(c)) prohibits you from approaching within 1,500 feet (500 yards) of these creatures, unless you have a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. If you do not have such authorization, the law requires that you establish a course away from any right whale and immediately depart the area at a constant airspeed, unless compliance would create an “imminent and serious threat” to a person, vessel, or aircraft.
So keep a sharp lookout, and do your part to “fly friendly” wherever you happen to be. (FAA Aviation News MayJun 2008)