Crews sometimes preferred to urinate or defecate into containers, before simply hurling their business out of a window. Some reputedly jettisoned full Elsan toilets on German targets along with their bombs – an early example of biological warfare.
James Kemper’s modern vacuum toilet wasn’t patented until the Seventies, with the first one installed by Boeing in 1982. Before that, plane loos were unwieldy boxes that utilised large quantities of blue liquid [actually known as “Skykem”, a reader has reliably informed us] and were prone to leaking. So next time you’re queuing to use the facilities at 30,000 feet, count yourself lucky.
Kemper’s nifty device uses a little liquid, but relies on non-stick coating and vacuum suction to wash away the nastiness. The video below shows just how efficiently the vacuum works.
“The person in this video is just stupid, immature, inconsiderate, and has no life,” comments one YouTube user, beneath the clip. “I am definitely doing this on my next flight.” Quite.
Since then, there have not really been any dramatic advances in aircraft toilet technology – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The only noteworthy item is that the toilets on Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners have automatically closing lids. Oh, and some toilets are getting smaller to really cram in those paying customers.
So what does happen to all that waste?
“There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during flight,” explains Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel. “At the end of a flight, the blue fluid, along with your contributions to it, are vacuumed into a tank on the back of a truck. (The truck driver’s job is even lousier than the co-pilot’s, but it pays better.)
“The driver then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot… In truth I don’t know what he does with it. Time to start a new urban legend.”
There is one caveat, however. It is impossible to empty passengers’ waste from an aircraft intentionally, but not by mistake.
“A man in California once won a lawsuit after pieces of “blue ice” fell from a plane and came crashing through the skylight of his sailboat,” added Captain Smith. “A leak, extending from a toilet’s exterior nozzle fitting, caused runoff to freeze, build, and then drop like a neon ice bomb. If you think that’s bad, a 727 once suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen chunk of its own leaked toilet waste, inspiring the line ‘when the s*** hits the turbofan.’”
According to Gizmodo : “Pressing the flush button opens a valve in the bottom of the bowl, exposing the contents to a pneumatic vacuum.
Close-up of airline lavatory door with sign reading ‘occupied’
“That vac sucks the load down the plane’s sewer line into a 200-gallon holding tank.”
The toilets also have a sort of Teflon non-stick coating to assist in pulling the waste down.
Waste remains in the tank for the duration of the flight and is vacuumed out by crews on the ground.
How do they ensure pilots don’t accidentally drop the waste in mid-air? Apparently there’s a latch on the exterior of the tank, so it can only be opened from the outside.
So, there you have it. Next time you’re on a plane and pop to the loo, you know exactly what’s happening.
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