Who poops on an airplane?

Frankly, your guess is as good as anyone-else’s. If you answered “everyone! when the need arises” I doubt any would debate it. I believe a more intriguing question is where it goes.

Do you know where airplane poop goes?

In the Walt Disney world of funny-looking wooden propeller airplanes, flushing a toilet could mean your waste ends up on some unsuspecting person down below. As a kid I was simply fascinated with how airplanes flew, curiosity drove me to learn all I could and before long I had earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. I have explored experimental ways to reduce landing gears drag, lead other exciting robotics projects, and formed a lasting bond with renowned peers in my field but the child in me still lives on.I made so many foolish assumptions growing up; one of which was the possibility of being struck by poop on my head or rather the face because I was always looking skyward whenever an airplane flew overhead. In some ways I was never far from the truth, because as farfetched as it seems to imagine the stuff being thrown overboard immediately you push the flush button, there have indeed been quite a handful of reported and documented cases of people getting “scat bombed”, with one woman even sustaining an eye injury.

History of Airplane Lavatory

In the 1920s and 30s early innovative engineers tried to incorporate toilets into their designs, but unfortunately the first aircraft crashed after its second flight. As time went on, the designs changed and the British Supermarine Stranraer aka flying boat which made its maiden flight in 1934, was successfully fitted with a toilet that was open to the air.

When the lid was lifted in flight, airflow produced a whistling noise that led to the aircraft being nicknamed the “Whistling Shithouse”.

Fast forward a decade to the Second World War: large military aircrafts such as the American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the British Avro Lancaster, carried chemical toilets, which were basically buckets with seats and covers, which more than occasionally overflowed and were difficult to use. keep in mind the intense cold temperatures of high altitudes required crews to wear many layers of heavy clothing, and since pilots were sometimes required to take violent evasive action with little warning, undressing to use the bathroom was often impractical. They were unpopular with the military crews, who would avoid using them if at all possible. Officers sometimes preferred to urinate into bottles or defecate into cardboard boxes, which were then thrown from the aircraft.

Blue Ice

After the “bucket age” lets agree to call it that, aviation experts came up with the idea of BLUE ICE  which lasted until 1975. The term “Blue Ice”, in the context of aviation, is a frozen sewage material that has accidentally leaked mid-flight from any commercial aircraft lavatory waste systems. It is a mixture of human bio-waste and liquid disinfectant that freezes at high altitude. The name comes from the blue color of the disinfectant and ice for obvious reasons. To clarify, airlines are not allowed to dump their waste tanks mid-flight, neither do pilots have a mechanism by which to do so; however, leaks sometimes do occur. Worried now? discovering that legitimized my fears, as I learnt there were about 27 documented incidents of blue ice impacts in the United States between 1979 and 2003, Thankfully no lives were lost. In case you never knew, you could be compensated for bodily harm or damage to property caused by blue ice impact, but the experience in itself is anything but pleasant.

The 1975 Miracle – The Pneumatic Vacuum Toilet

You may have noticed that the sound of the toilet being flushed on a plane is way louder that a regular flush sound. It leaves us wondering if everyone on the plane can hear us flush the toilet and gives us a snakes-on-a-plane feeling. The whisking sound could also explain why people may think the waste gets released in the sky, but that is not true; the waste gets exposed to a pneumatic vacuum, which is air operated and designed for environments where electricity is not largely available. When the toilet valve opens, the vacuum takes care of all contents of the toilet into a closed waste system which is connected to a tank. After the airplane lands the tank is emptied out by a ground crew. The exterior latch you might see outside the aircraft helps to keep the tank in place to avoid the pilot from dropping the content accidentally. This new system was invented in 1975 and first installed in 1983 by Boeing.
I hope this puts your active imagination to rest; your poop is safely and properly disposed of shortly after you land. In fact, the truck that does the job is nicknamed the honey truck. So next time you are waiting your turn behind other pressed passengers to use the lavatory on a flight remember that though it may be a cramped little box with a minimalist seat, it is nothing short of the result of continuous innovation and ingenuity made possible by the dedicated women and men of aerospace engineering design.

surprisingly both worlds still exists simultaneously today

“State-of-the-art” https://amzn.to/2zVPndw

“Bucket age”  https://amzn.to/2Y4WU2Z

If you would like to see improvements in the aesthetic designs of airplane lavatories, leave your suggestions in the comment section and check out these simplistic or sophisticated ensembles above for inspiration.

Engineer Dami Molu, Author