LOS ANGELES — Battling rattlesnakes may not be in the job description for an airline mechanic, but it's become a regular fight in Southern California.
As millions of Americans take to the skies for the busy summer travel season, thousands of planes remain in desert storage facilities due to the downturn in international travel.
The non-use has led Qantas Airlines mechanics charged with maintaining the world's largest passenger jets in a Victorville storage facility two hours outside of Los Angeles to routinely find venomous Mojave rattlesnakes and scorpions in and around the wheel wells.
"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. 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," Tim Heywood, Qantas Airlines' manager for engineering in Los Angeles, wrote in a press release.
Airlines store planes in the desert because of the dry climate. Every crevice and opening must be sealed, tires must be moved regularly and condensation must be removed from fuel tanks in order to protect the planes.
"Aircraft like these are highly technical and you can't just land it at the storage facility, park it and walk away. It's really important that even when in deep storage, the aircraft are maintained to the Qantas standard," Heywood explained. "The wheels, [tires] and landing gear legs are wrapped in protective film and all inlets and orifices on the fuselage are plugged to avoid insects, birds and even bats making themselves at home."
Planes in short-term storage require more maintenance than planes flying daily. Insects and animals can nest in a plane within 24 to 48 hours of non-use.
"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," Haywood added.
At the height of the pandemic, airlines in the U.S. and around the world stored or retired thousands of planes in what are commonly referred to as "airplane graveyards" in Southern California and Arizona. Slowly, many planes have returned to service, but hundreds of the larger, twin-aisle wide-body jets like the double decker A380 remain parked in the southwestern U.S.