How Wasps Brought Down a Commercial Airliner

Birgenair was a Turkish airline carrier that began operations in 1988. It’s first aircraft was a Douglas DC-8, although it later added aircraft from Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas, among them two Boeing 757s. On Feb. 6, 1996, Birgenair Flight KT301, carrying 176 passengers and 13 crew members, prepared to take off from Gregorio Luperón International Airport in the Dominican Republic destined to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. This particular flight was the aircraft’s first in 20 days. For nearly 3 weeks, it had been sitting unused at airport with its pitot tubes left open. These devices measure operational factors like the plane's airspeed and altitude. Because the pitot tubes were open, wasps made a nest in them, which blocked the tube’s ability to correctly register airspeed. This prompted the autopilot to reduce the aircraft’s speed and pitch its nose upward. The autopilot then disengaged and the pilots themselves reduced thrust, causing the aircraft to stall. By then, only the right-hand engine was running, which threw the plane into a spin. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all onboard. Birgenair ended up filing for bankruptcy shortly thereafter, bringing the airline’s story to an end.