Spiders on a Plane

SOPs, checklists and emergency procedures cannot prepare an arachnophobic jet team pilot for the eventuality of a big, hairy, scary tarantula dangling over his lap during a five-plane, line-abreast roll.

By Rob Mitchell

So there I was – on my way to the legendary Route 66 and to Tucumcari, New Mexico for their annual mid-week air show. The Tucumcari Air Show is a highly celebrated event during the fall, so popular in town that most people take off work and kids get out of school early to ensure they can get to the show. It also happens to be the time of year that spiders migrate – big ones, hairy ones, the ones of our nightmares. I did not know this prior to my arrival.

I was leading the RCAF's Snowbirds jet team at the time and we were transiting from somewhere in the western United States to New Mexico on this beautiful fall day. The conditions were ideal, and I chose to have the nine aircraft launch together and follow one another in trail formation for a low-level flight. The soil was brilliant red and the rock outcroppings jagged, giving me a sense we were flying on another planet. No sooner than we crossed the Mitchell River, I could see Tucumcari in the distance. We set up for our usual nine-plane formation low pass and recovery; back to Earth.

Everything seemed normal for the “vic” landings, when we land in three groups of three. On short final, just prior to touch down, I could see dozens of small tumbleweeds rolling gracefully across the runway. “We really are in the wild west!” I thought. Although they were small, I was somewhat concerned about ingesting a tumbleweed into an engine. I proceeded cautiously.

As we rolled out post touchdown, I quickly realized that the tumbleweeds were moving in several directions. To my instant disgust, I realized that they were in fact part of a horde of tarantulas on the runway scurrying in every direction. I am not a fan of spiders - any spiders. I felt a wave of nausea and I think I may have even gagged as I felt them squishing beneath the wheels of my jet. Just awful.

Then Major Rob Scratch Mitchell, Snowbirds Team Lead works through the fear by facing his nemesis down in the grassy infield at Tucumcari, New Mexico. Photo via Rob Scratch Mitchell

Despite being an aviator whose gaze tends to remain skyward, I quickly developed a rather acute ground scan after I reluctantly climbed out of my CT-114 Tutor Snowbird jet. That scan remained groundward for the next 48 hours.

Being reasonably conscious of my fitness, I conceded to go for a run the next morning. I decided to steer well clear of any unpaved surfaces or any terrain that might offer a surprise attack. Another thing I did not know is that tarantulas tend to like the hot surface of asphalt. Although I only ran for 30 minutes, my heart did enough beats for a three-hour race. I have never felt so nimble. My feet barely touched the ground as I navigated the hairy demons that scurried in from the sides of the road. “What the hell am I am I doing here?” I thought. At one point I even passed a stick on the road that quickly slithered into the brush when my foot came down within twelve inches of it. I made it back to the hotel, a frantic wreck. I once again ensured that the drains of the tub and sink were plugged and the opening at the bottom of the door was sealed, then I took a restless nap.

Later that day I arrived at the airfield to see the technicians busily preparing the jets. The pilots were preparing for the flight and the energy was building like it always does before a performance. I was in my happy place once again.

Following our briefing we launched and despite the high altitude of the airfield and high temperatures that made the air thin we were able to do our loops and rolls during the warm-up manoeuvres. The only issue seemed to be that millions of tiny green airborne insects decided to join us. Our windscreens were quickly becoming the final resting places for these wee green creatures. After some deliberation I decided the visibility was sufficient to continue.  “What is it with this place?”, I said to myself.

Show time! Were off to the races. The show progressed well and we were managing the visibility and density altitude challenges. Then it was time for the five-plane line abreast roll and loop manoeuvre…

Just as I started to pull up to the vertical for the roll, I noticed movement above my head and slightly in front of me. I gave a fleeting glance at the canopy bow in front of me and to my horror I saw a rather large spider perched on the rear-view mirror. As most would suspect, these mirrors are on the inside of the canopy. This particular spider had a bright orange thorax (a word I later learned during research) and hairy thick legs. It measured at least three centimeters across. Being orange I determined it was most certainly deadly.

Spider or no spider, I needed to continue the manoeuvre. I then proceeded to roll the formation, willing the spider to stay put. The five-plane line abreast roll is one of the most challenging manoeuvres to perform and lead. One must be careful not to roll the formation too late and stall out, nor roll too slow such that the nose slices low causing a high “G” pull out, or worse.

“I noticed movement above my head and slightly in front of me. I gave a fleeting glance at the canopy bow in front of me and to my horror I saw a rather large spider perched on the rear-view mirror.Photo montage: Dave O'Malley. Thanks to Snowbirds

All was well until I applied 3 “G” on the recovery portion of the roll… Either the spider no longer had the holding force, or it saw that moment as the perfect time to attack, but it dropped on to my increasingly stressed thigh. I instantly decided to discontinue the follow-on loop, called “flying through” and gave a wild slap to my thigh. I missed! The spider repositioned for a re-attack. I smacked my thigh again out of the corner of my eye. (I still needed eyes out front to miss the ground) I connected, but looked down to see only three legs and no spider.

I decided to continue with the show after a short debate on whether the now five-legged spider could drag itself up to my jugular. I landed a stressed mess. Three hours of Internet searching ensued with no luck. Clearly it came from space.

I declined the offer to return to Tucumcari the following year.

By Rob Mitchell
Poster montage: Dave O'Malley

Rob Mitchell, is now retired from the RCAF and is a 737 pilot with Westjet. He is on of Vintage Wings of Canada;'s pilots flying the Discovery Air Hawk One F-86 Sabre as well as flying with the Patriots L-39 Jet Team in the United States. He is also a gifted film actor.

Fighter pilots-actors, giant spiders and the desert of America's southwest have been the subjects of another story–the Universal International Studios' hokey science fiction movie Tarantula of 1957. Shot in Arizona and with a small budget and a short appearance by Clint Eastwood (his first movie - 2 years before his appearances on TV's Rawhide), the movie featured an atomic mutant arachnid on the loose and, according to the film's many posters, devouring large breasted women in scanty outfits though no such scenes are in the film. Eastwood played the part of a fighter pilot sent to deal with the troublesome octo-pod.

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