There Was an Old Lady...

“…who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die!” So goes the song recorded by Burl Ives in 1953, but based on prior, nonsensical so-called “cumulative” verses that repeat what went before, adding more narrative at each telling.

In this fanciful ditty, after consuming Musca domestica, she gulps down successively larger creatures to eat the one that went before, each refrain suggesting that her time on earth might be limited. You know the expression to be so hungry one could eat a horse? In fact, her last tasty tidbit is a horse and the result? Dead, of course!

 As pilots, we have a similarly potentially fatal relationship with all creatures great and small; blasting through the air, our chariots smash bugs and, perhaps in retaliation, the animal kingdom schemes to retaliate?

 I previously wrote an article entitled “Airports Are Dangerous Places” ( and mentioned that certain airport-inhabiting animals might pose threats to human health. Recently, I was chatting with a dear friend, Professor Carl Hauser, who told me a cautionary tale and once again my Muse visited and inspired this article. A friend of Carl had fallen ill of late due to organophosphate poisoning, a group of chemicals defined by the Cambridge dictionary as substances “…used for killinginsects and smallanimals that damagecrops,” thankfully now banned from food-facing or home use. Carl’s friend did not knowingly consume the toxin; it happened inadvertently as he was spraying for ants but failed to cover his face or ensure good ventilation.

Organophosphates may cause symptoms as mild as increased salivation and tear production, but might induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and confusion that can last for weeks—and, in some cases, death. If you have children visiting your hangar, I am sure you tell them of the dangers such places harbor—poisons are a de-facto existential threat and should be kept under lock and key and away from inquisitive hands, noses, and mouths.

As a rule, men worry more about what they can’t see than about what they can. One of Caesar’s quotes that is germane here: threats in and around your aircraft may not be immediately visible, yet merit concern; we are right to worry about what we cannot see!

After swallowing a fly, our demented exponent of invertebrate ingestion consumed a spider, which wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her! Spiders and aircraft don’t mix as arachnids may choose to build their webs in a static port or pitot tube with dire consequences if not found on a diligent pre-flight. Insects such as hornets or wasps may choose to take up residence in the cabin; imagine discovering one has a bunch of stinging stowaways while endeavoring to effect an instrument approach in IMC. So, keeping your hangar bug-free is essential maintenance. Scan the eaves for wasp nests and if present, don protective clothing, obtain a ladder and assistant, or better yet, call a professional to remove the threat. If deploying poisons, make sure you follow instructions, wear a mask, and have the hangar door open while spraying.

After flies and spiders, in one version that I heard from a Scottish friend, the omnivorous object of the tale feasted on a mouse. These, and other rodents, can chew through aircraft hoses and wires, damage upholstery, and spread unpleasant conditions like Weil’s disease. This obnoxious illness took the life of a friend many years ago—a condition also known as leptospirosis, it is spread via rat urine or contaminated water and enters the body via breaks in the skin, or through the mouth and nose. Having humane anti-rodent traps or poison around your aircraft is a sensible precaution, but as with insect poisons, ensure that curious children are kept well away. I recall my ER days and seeing one child with a glue trap stuck to his tongue and another who had chosen to chow down on anticoagulant rat poison; both survived to tell the tail (deliberate pun) but such situations are best avoided!

The elderly female protagonist in our titular ditty next chose a bird to eat the mouse, “how absurd to swallow a bird!” Early one fine spring day, I landed at my home airport, taxied to the hangar, and left to run some errands and join a friend for a long, languid lunch. As I had another flight scheduled for early evening, I had neither closed the door, which like my lunch took forever, nor placed the inlet plugs. I am, thankfully, a neurotic pilot and performed Bernoulli’s Ballet, my post-prandial pre-flight walkaround checks. All seemed in order apart from the few phantom fragments of straw lying on the otherwise pristine floor near the nose-wheel. Our FBO had posted a notice reminding pilots that starlings were nesting at this time, and the straw raised my suspicions. Not seeing evidence of avian bird home construction elsewhere in the hangar, I chose to remove the engine cowling, no small feat in this type of aircraft. What greeted my eyes was a rather substantial nest situated close to the port manifold and fuel line. I shuddered to think what would have transpired had I not been so inquisitive, but the chance that the intrusive starling would have grounded me—literally—for good was substantial. I have often stated that laziness is bad for your health as it leads to obesity, heart disease, and many more of the ills flesh is heir to; here is a case where my laziness could have impacted my health and it led me to a daily affirmation, to be diligent from first morning stretch to last yawn.

To pull this narrative together, my friend Carl, mentioned above, is not just a prominent trauma surgeon and brilliant scientist, he is also the guitarist for an enduring rock band, The Druids (also known as The Druids of Stonehenge). Thinking about my starling situation reminded me of their song “She Got My Nose Open,” and following in that vein, one cannot say it’s “Nobody’s Fault” if insects or other critters cause damage to your ride. As always, my goal is to provide you, my fellow pilots, with a nugget or two of wisdom that might be of service. Check out Burl Ives, and check out The Druids ( – one of my favorite Druids songs is “Run for Cover”, and keep critters away from your aircraft!

Fly well!

You can send your questions and comments to Dr. Sackier via email: [email protected] and listen to his weekly podcasts at:

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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