Qantas planes parked in California desert attract rattlesnakes

(CNN) — Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of planes from airlines around the world have been grounded, with many temporarily moved to hot, arid deserts — ideal conditions for aircraft storage.

But as plane maintenance workers have discovered, such climates often come with unwanted — and occasionally deadly — inhabitants.

Australian airline Qantas has revealed that engineers tasked with maintaining its fleet of A380 superjumbos stored in California’s Mojave Desert have had to come up with a simple but effective system to protect themselves from the area’s venomous rattlesnakes.

“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,” said Qantas’ Los Angeles-based engineering manager Tim Heywood in a news update published on the airline’s website.

“Every aircraft has its own designated ‘wheel whacker’ (a repurposed broom handle) as part of the engineering kit, complete with each aircraft’s registration written on it.”

Prior to any landing gear inspections, the workers first walk around the plane stomping their feet and tapping the wheels with the whacker to scare off any slumbering snakes, said Heywood.

A Qantas 'wheel whacker' rests against the tire of an A380 parked in the Mojave Desert.

A Qantas ‘wheel whacker’ rests against the tire of an A380 parked in the Mojave Desert.


“We’ve encountered a few rattlesnakes and also some scorpions, but the wheel whacker does its job and they scuttle off,” he noted.

“It’s a unique part of looking after these aircraft while they’re in storage and it’s another sign of how strange the past year has been. These A380s would rarely spend more than a day on the ground when they were in service.”

Qantas has reportedly parked a dozen or so of its A380s in an airfield in Victorville, about two hours outside of Los Angeles. One of them took off for the first time in 290 days this week, flying from Victorville to Los Angeles to undergo a gear swing procedure at Qantas’ LAX hangar.

“Aircraft like these are highly technical and you can’t just land it at the storage facility, park it and walk away,” said Heywood. ” It’s really important that even when in deep storage, the aircraft are maintained to the Qantas standard.”

Return to flight

At the height of the pandemic, more than two thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft were grounded and sent to storage facilities around the world.

Once parked, the planes go through a process that involves draining fluids, covering engine intakes and exhaust areas and protecting external instruments like pitot tubes (used for monitoring the airplane’s speed during flight).

And now, many airlines are having to reverse the process.

Unused Qantas A380s sit in an airfield in Victorville, California.

Unused Qantas A380s sit in an airfield in Victorville, California.


And bringing planes out of hibernation isn’t as simple as just firing up the engine and taking off. In 2020, CNN Travel spoke with several experts about the return-to-flight process.

According to licensed B1 aircraft engineer Steph Smith, when planes have been grounded for some time, getting them ready to fly again means starting with simple things like removing the massive number of blanks — engine protectors — and tapes covering every hole, port or probe.

“There is nothing worse than having systems full of bugs, water or debris because, as aircraft accident investigations have shown over the years, blocked pitot-static systems can be catastrophic,” Smith told CNN.

Smith estimates that it takes more than 100 man-hours to make a wide-body aircraft airworthy after storage, and around 40 man-hours for a narrow-body aircraft. The time it takes depends on both the size of the aircraft and how long it has been stored.

“If you’ve only had it stored short-term you can get them turned around quite quickly because you’ve been doing the maintenance every couple of weeks to keep them airworthy,” explained Smith.

“Whereas aircraft in long-term storage can take you a long time, and if you’re talking something like an A380, it’s going to be a lot of work because it’s a big aircraft.”

Other tasks include changing fluids in the engines if they’ve been inhibited and reconnecting batteries.

“Then you power everything up, re-establish everything and run through all the system functional checks,” said Smith.

CNN’s Katy Scott contributed to this report.