Qantas Airbus A380 superjumbos: Rattlesnakes cause problems for engineers maintaining planes in desert storage

Qantas engineers maintaining the airline's grounded Airbus A380 fleet in a Californian desert are facing a novel problem: rattlesnakes are making homes in the landing gear.

The airline moved its superjumbo fleet to Victorville, in the Mojave Desert, for deep storage last year, due to the downturn in air travel and the suspension of its international routes.

The location's dry heat and low humidity makes it ideal for storing aircraft, but it's also an ideal environment for highly venomous rattlesnakes and scorpions. The nasty critters are setting up home around the grounded planes' tyres and landing gear.

As a result, Qantas engineers have had to start using a "wheel whacker" to try and scare off the animals before carrying out inspections.

Qantas's Los Angeles-based engineering manager, Tim Heywood told the airline's Roo Tales blog that the snakes loved curling up around the warm tyres.

"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," he said.

"The first thing we do before we unwrap and start any ground inspections of the landing gear in particular 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.

Video: Qantas superjumbos' deep storage in the desert


"Only then do we carefully approach each wheel and unwrap them before performing our pressure checks and visual inspections."

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

The Mojave rattlesnake is one of the deadliest snakes in the world and is found in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, along with the north western regions of Mexico.

Regular maintenance on the aircraft includes draining fuel tanks of water caused by condensation, rotating the wheels to avoid flat spots, checking tyre pressure, and inspecting the fuselage and wings for animal nests.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has estimated the airline's 12 A380s won't return to the skies until 2023, when demand for international travel has recovered. The world's largest passenger aircraft, the A380 can carry up to 485 passengers in Qantas's four-class layout.

Several Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which are also used for international long-haul routes, have also been put into storage at Mojave, though the airline recently announced it would start putting Dreamliners on its Sydney-Perth route.

Qantas has also announced an incentive program for passengers to get vaccinated, which the airline sees as the key to restarting international travel, including giving away free flights for a year.

There was some excitement in aviation circles this week after a Qantas A380 was spotted on flight radar moving from the desert to Los Angeles International airport, with speculation that the superjumbo was about to re-enter service.

Alas, it was not the case - the plane flew to the airport to undergo a gear swing procedure, where it is jacked up and its landing gear swung up and down. It was the first time the plane had flown in 290 days.

Qantas's Boeing 747 jumbo jets, which were retired early due to the pandemic's effect on international travel, have also ended up in Mojave (though at least one has been sold to a mystery buyer, so will fly again).

While there is also an aircraft storage facility here in Australia, near Alice Springs, the Mojave desert location is more convenient for Qantas as the airline has engineers based in Los Angeles, just two hours' drive away.

Other airlines from our region have opted to use the Alice Springs facility, including Singapore Airlines, which has stored several A380s there.

There has been speculation that the pandemic will hasten the demise of the A380, which, like its jumbo predecessor, the 747, has fallen out of favour with airlines in recent years as they opt for smaller, more fuel efficient planes.

Air France temporarily grounded its A380s after the outbreak of COVID-19, but in May announced it would retire its fleet of nine superjumbos immediately. Lufthansa has also retired several A380s.

Airbus has now ceased production of the A380, with the last superjumbo taking off for the first time in March. The plane, registration A6-EVS, will join Emirates' fleet of 117 A380s, the largest superjumbo fleet in the world.

See also: 'COVID-19 has terminated my career': Hero of A380 flight QF32 grounded

See also: What happens when a plane gets scrapped