The Curious History of Toilets at 35,000 Feet – and What Happens When You Flush an Airplane

Aircraft loos rarely get the recognition they deserve - Getty

Aircraft loos rarely get the recognition they deserve – Getty

Unless you’ve traveled first class or on a private jet, airplane restrooms are windowless and cramped and usually smell of cheap sanitizer. But they’ve come a long way and rarely get the recognition they deserve.

History does not record the first person to relieve themselves on an airplane, but the first “amenities” were probably a bottle, or even just a hole in the floor of the plane – which allowed typically male pilots to urinate at the controls. As planes traveled further, introducing saddles into the equation, this would have been transformed into a bucket, maybe even one with a lid.

The first model to be fitted with proper toilets may well have been the Caproni Ca.60, a nine-wing seaplane unveiled in 1921 and destined to become a 100-passenger transatlantic airliner. Alas, it crashed on its second test flight and never flew again.

But air travel in the early years was the preserve of the very wealthy, so before long most passenger planes will have carried some sort of separate toilet compartment – with something a little more refined than a waste bucket. The Handley Page HP42, for example, introduced in 1931 by Imperial Airways and forming the backbone of its fleet until World War II, was fitted with two lavatories near the center of the aircraft, along the cargo bay. luggage. Its opulent interior was reminiscent of Pullman wagons of the era, and the restrooms were equally stately.

Less impressive were the installations found on military aircraft. The Supermarine Stranraer seaplane, which was built for the RAF and entered service in 1937, had an open air toilet – the longest of the long drop toilets. When the lid was lifted during a flight, the wind created a shrill noise which saw the plane dubbed the Whistling S*** house.

The Handley HP42 Page - Getty

The Handley HP42 Page – Getty

Other fun facts are recorded about work related to RAF aircrew toilets. World War II pilots, for example, couldn’t stand the bucket loos – or “Elsans” – found aboard Lancaster bombers. They were often tricky to use in turbulent conditions, and sometimes overflowed.

An unidentified aviator described his hatred for the contraptions: “As we flew through choppy airs, this devilish convenience often shared its contents with the plane’s floor, walls, ceiling, and sometimes a little remained in the container itself.

“It doesn’t take much of the imagination to imagine what it was like to try to fight fear and airsickness while struggling to get enough gear out of cramped quarters and at the same time trying to use the bloody Elsan… This loathsome creation invariably overflowed on long journeys and in turbulence was always prone to bathing the nether regions of the user.It was one of the true reminders to me that war, it’s hell.

Airmen sometimes preferred to urinate or defecate in containers, before simply throwing their belongings out the window. Some are said to have dropped full Elsan toilets on German targets with their bombs – an early example of biological warfare.

Robert Bluffield’s book Over Empires and Oceans: Pioneers, Aviators and Adventurers records other toilet-related tidbits from this period. A 1934 Qantas crash involving a de Havilland DH86, in which all four people on board were killed, apparently occurred after the pilot went to the toilet and the plane went into a flat spin – making it possibly the first case of an accident caused by nature’s call. In 1933, an Imperial Airways flight crashed in Belgium, killing all 15 on board, following an in-flight fire, likely caused by a cigarette flushed down the toilet – and possibly the first incident of this type in aviation history (among the most notorious was Varig Flight 820 in 1973, in which 123 people died).

1950s airplane toilet on a Boeing 707 - Getty

1950s airplane toilet on a Boeing 707 – Getty

James Kemper’s modern vacuum toilets were not patented until the 1970s, with the first being installed by Boeing in 1982. Prior to this, airplane toilets were bulky boxes that used large amounts of blue liquid known as the name “Skykem” and were prone to leaks. So the next time you line up to use the facilities at 35,000 feet, count yourself lucky.

Kemper’s nifty device uses a little liquid, but relies on a nonstick coating and powerful vacuum suction to blast away dirt.

Since then, there haven’t really been any dramatic advances in airplane lavatory technology – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The only noteworthy feature is that the lavatories on Boeing 787 Dreamliners have self-closing lids (although it is nearly impossible for modern aircraft lavatories to overflow as the waste tank is several meters from the lavatory and sensors warn when it is almost full). Oh, and some restrooms are getting smaller to really cram in those paying customers. The toilets on Ryanair’s new 737 MAX planes are apparently so small that you can only wash one hand at a time.

What then becomes of all this waste? Is it dropped in the sky? To all those airmen who insist on holding on until the plane reaches European soil, prepare to be deeply disappointed.

“There’s no way you can flush toilet contents during a flight,” says Patrick Smith, pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel. “At the end of a flight, the blue liquid, along with your contributions, is sucked into a tank in the back of a truck. (The truck driver’s job sucks even more than the co-driver’s, but it pays better.)

A Faithful Car Wash - Getty

A Faithful Car Wash – Getty

“The driver then heads to the back of the airport and stealthily dumps the waste into a ditch behind a parking lot…just kidding. In truth, I don’t know what he does with it. It’s time to start a new urban legend.

However, there is a caveat. It’s impossible to dump passenger waste from an airplane intentionally, but not by mistake, and there have been dozens of documented incidents of “blue ice” causing ground damage.

“A man in California has won a lawsuit after chunks of blue ice fell from an airplane and crashed through the skylight of his sailboat,” Captain Smith added. “A leak, extending from the outside nozzle fitting of a toilet, caused the runoff to freeze, form and fall like a neon ice bomb. If you think that’s bad, a 727 has already suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen piece of his own toilet waste, inspiring the line “when shit hits the turbojet”.

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