Good but long Lav Explosion Story


New Member
Cut and pasted from the ALPA boards

There is a tired old adage that defines the business of flying planes as
long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Moments of
sheer ridiculousness may be equally as harrowing. One young pilot, when he
was 22 and trying to impress the pretty Christine Collingworth by taking her
up for a twilight sightseeing circuit in a friend's Cessna, highlighted the
seduction by whacking his forehead into the jutting metal pitot tube hanging
from the 172's wing. Earning himself a famous "Cessna dimple," so he chose
to think, would be the stupidest thing he'd ever do in or around an airplane

That was more than a decade ago, and a long way from this same pilot's mind
during a recent cargo flight. It's 11 p.m. and the airplane, an old DC-8
freighter loaded with 50 thousand pounds of pineapples, is somewhere over

the Bermuda Triangle, bound from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Cincinnati. The
night is dark and quiet, void of moonlight, conversation, and for that
matter worry. The crew of three are tired, and this will be their last leg
in a week's rotation that has sent them from New York to Belgium and back
again, onward to Mexico, and then to the Caribbean.

They are mesmerized by the calming drone of high-bypass turbofans and the
deceptively peaceful noise of 500 knots of sub-zero air cleaving past the
cockpit windows. Such a setting, when you really think about it, ought to be
enough to scare the living [expletive deleted] out of any sensible person. We have no
business, maybe, being up there, participants in such an inherently
dangerous balance between naïve solitude and instant death, distracted by
paperwork and chicken sandwiches while screaming along, higher than Mount
Everest and at the speed of sound, in a 40-year-old assemblage of machinery.
But such philosophizing is for poets, not pilots, and also makes for

exceptionally bad karma. Neither poetry nor any kind of mystical rumination
is in the job description for these three airmen, consummate professionals
who long ago sold their souls to the gods of technology and luck.

One of these consummate professionals is a 34-year-old from Massachusetts.
He's been flying planes since he was 16 but has seen his career stray oddly
from its intended course, his ambitions of flying gleaming new passenger
jets to exotic ports-of-call have given way to the much coarser world of air
cargo, to sleepless, back-of-the-clock timetables, the greasy glare of
warehouse lights, and the roar of forklifts -- realities that have aroused a
low note of disappointment that rings constantly in the back of his brain.
He is the second officer. His station, a sideways-turned chair and a great,
blackboard-size panel of instruments, is set against the starboard wall
behind the captain and first officer.

He stands up from the second officer's seat and walks out of the cockpit,

closing the door behind him. Here he enters the only other area of the plane
accessible to the pilots in flight, the small vestibule adjacent to the main
cabin door. It contains a life raft, an oven, a cooler, some storage space
and the lavatory. His plan is simple enough -- to get himself a Diet Coke or
to be international about things, since we're coming from the land of
paycheck-fattening "override" pay and a king's-ransom's worth of per diem, a
Coca-Cola Light -- the extra-saccharined, less-carbonated version of our own
domestic product.

The soft drinks are in a cardboard box on the floor, in a six-pack strapped
together with one of those clear plastic harnesses so dangerous to sea
turtles and small children. These plastic rings are banned at home, but
apparently perfectly legal in the Caribbean, where there are, of course,
lots of sea turtles and smal> l children. The pilot is thinking about this
as he reaches for a can, weighing the injustices of the world,

philosophizing, daydreaming, ruminating -- things that, again, his manuals
neither command nor endorse for perhaps good reason.

He unstraps a Coke and decides to put the remaining ones in the cooler to
chill. The cooler, a red lift-top Coleman that you'd buy in Sears, sits in
front of the lavatory and is packed with bags of ice. The pilot drops in the
cans, but now the cooler will not close. There's too much ice. One of the
bags will have to go. So he pulls one out and shuts the lid. Decisions,
decisions: Which checklist does he initiate? Which shutoff valve does he
yank closed? Which circuit breakers does he pull? Which buttons does he
press to keep everyone alive and this contraption intact? And what to do,
now, with an extra, sopping-wet bag of ice? The pilot will do what he always
does with an extra bag of ice. He will open the bag and dump it down the
toilet. This he has done so often that the sound of a hundred cubes hitting
the metal bowl is a familiar one.

This time, though, for reasons he hasn't realized yet, there are no cubes;
or, more correctly, there is one huge cube. He rips open the bag, which is
greenish and slightly opaque, and out slides a long, single block of ice,
probably two pounds' worth, that clatters off the rim and splashes into the
bowl. There it is met, of course, by the caustic blue liquid one always
finds in airplane toilets, the strange chemical cocktail that so efficiently
and brightly, neutralizes our usual organic contributions. The fluid washes
over the ice. He hits the flush lever and it's drawn into the hole and out
of sight. He turns, clutching the empty bag, worrying still about the
dangers of plastic rings and turtles, picturing some poor endangered
hawksbill choking to death. It just isn't fair.

And it's now that the noise begins. As he steps away, the pilot hears a
deep and powerful burble, which immediately repeats itself and seems to
emanate from somewhere in the bowels of the plane. How to describe it? It's

similar to the sound your own innards might make if you've eaten an entire
pizza or, perhaps, swallowed Drano, amplified a thousand times over. The
pilot stops and a quick shot of adrenaline pulses into his veins. What was
that? It grows louder. Then there's a rumble, a vibration passes up through
his feet, and from behind him comes a loud swishing noise.

He turns and looks at the toilet. But it has, for all practical purposes,
disappeared, and where it once rested he now finds what he will later
describe only as a vision. In place of the commode roars a fluorescent blue
waterfall, a huge, heaving cascade of toilet fluid thrust waist-high into
the air and splashing into all four corners of the lavatory. Pouring from
the top of this volcano, like smoke out of a factory chimney, is a rapidly
spreading pall of what looks like steam. He closes his eyes tight for a
second, then reopens them. He does this not for the benefit of unwitnessed

theatrics, or even to create an embellishing detail for eventual use in a
story. He does so because, for the first time in his life, he truly does not
believe what has cast itself before him.

The fountain grows taller, and he sees now that the toilet is not actually
spraying, but bubbling -- a geyser of boiling, lathering blue foam topped
with a thick white fog. And suddenly he realizes what has happened. It was
not a block of ice, exactly, that he fed to the toilet. It was a block of
dry ice.

To combine dry ice with any sort of liquid is to initiate the turbulent,
and rather unstoppable, chemical reaction now underway in front of our
unfortunate friend. The effect, though in our case on a much grander scale,
is similar to the mixing of baking soda with vinegar, or dumping water into
a Fryolator, an exciting experiment those of you who've worked in
restaurants have probably experienced: The boiling oil will have nothing to

do with the water, discharging its elements in a violent surge of bubbles.
Normally, on th> ose rare occasions when the caterers employ dry ice, it's
packed apart in smaller, square-shaped bags you can't miss. Today, though,
an extra-large allotment was stuffed into a regular old ice-cube bag -- two
pounds of solid carbon dioxide mixing quite unhappily with a tankful of acid

Within seconds a wide blue river begins to flow out of the lav and across
the floor, where a series of tracks, panels, and gullies promptly splits it
into several smaller rivers, each leading away to a different nether region
beneath the main deck of the DC-8. The liquid moves rapidly along these
paths, spilling off into the corners and crevasses. It's your worst bathroom
nightmare at home or in a hotel -- clogging up the •ter at midnight and
watching it overflow. Except this time it's a Technicolor eruption of
flesh-eating poison, dribbling between the floor seams of an airplane at 33

000 feet, down into the entrails of the beast to freeze itself around cables
or short out bundles of vital wiring. Our pilot once read a report about a
toilet reservoir somehow becoming frozen in the back of a 727. A chunk of
blue ice was ejected overboard and sucked into an engine, causing the entire
engine, pylon and all, to tear away and drop to earth.

And the pilot knows this cataract is not going to stop until either the CO2
is entirely evaporated or the tank of blue death is entirely drained.
Meanwhile, the white steam, the evaporating carbon dioxide, is filling the
cabin with vapor like the smoke show at a rock concert. He decides to get
the captain.

Our captain tonight, as fate would have it, is a boisterous and slightly
crazy Scandinavian. Let's call him Jens. Jens is tall and square-jawed, with
graying, closely cropped curls and an animated air of fiery, charismatic
cocksure. Jens is one of those guys who make everybody laugh simply by

walking into a room, though whether he's trying to is never made entirely
clear. He is sitting in the captain's chair. The sun has set hours ago but
he is still wearing mirrored Ray-Bans.

"Jens, come here fast! I need your help."

Jens nods to the first officer, unbuckles his belt, and moves quickly toward
the cockpit door. This is an airline captain, a confident four-striper
trained and ready for any assortment of airborne calamity -- engine failures
fires, bombs, wind shear. What will he find back there? Jens steps into the
entryway and is greeted not by any of a thousand different training
scenarios but by a psychedelic fantasy of color and smoke, a wall of white
fog and a fuming blue witch's cauldron, the outfall from which now covers
the entire floor, from the entrance of the cockpit to the enormous nylon
safety net that separates the crew from its load of pineapples.

Jens stares. Then he turns to his young second officer and puts a hand on

his shoulder, a gesture of both fatherly comfort and surrendering
camaraderie, as if to say, "Don't worry son, I'll clean all this up," or
maybe, "Down with the ship we go, my friend." He sighs, gestures toward the
fizzing, angrily disgorging bowl and says, with a tone of surprisingly
unironic pride: "She's got quite a head on her, doesn't she?"

But what can they do? In one of those dreaded realizations that pilots are
advised to avoid, the insulation between cockpit calm and atmospheric
anarchy looks thin indeed. An extrapolated vision of horror: the riveted
aluminum planks bending apart, the wind rushing in, explosive
depressurization, death, the first airliner -- no, the first vehicle -- in
history to crash because of an overflowing toilet. Into the sea, where
divers and salvage ships will haul up the wreckage, detritus trailing from
mauled, unrecognizable pieces while investigators shake their heads. At
least, the pilot thinks, odds are nobody will ever know the truth; the cold
ocean will carry away the evidence. He's as good as dead but saved, maybe,
from immortal embarrassment. A dash of mystique awaits him, the same that
met St. Exup> éry at the dark bottom of the Mediterranean, another lousy
pilot who got philosophical and paid the price. Maybe he blew up the toilet
too. Probable cause: unknown.

"Call flight control," commands Jens, hoping a dose of authority will
inject some clarity into a scene that is obviously and hopelessly absurd.
Get a patch with maintenance and explain what happened."

The pilot rushes back to the cockpit to call the company's maintenance
staff. He fires up the HF radios, small black boxes that can bounce the
human voice, and any of its associated embarrassments, up off the ionosphere
and halfway around the world if need be. He will announce his predicament to
the mechanics, but also to any of dozens of other crews who happen to be
monitoring the same frequency. Even before keying the mike he can see the
looks and hear the wisecracks from the Delta and United pilots in their
state-of-the-art 777s, Mozart soothing their passengers through Bose
headsets, flight attendants wiping down the basins while somewhere in the
night sky three poor souls in a Cold War relic are trapped in a blue
scatological hell, struggling helplessly with a flood of [expletive deleted] and chemicals.

"You say the toilet exploded?" Maintenance is on the line, incredulous but
not particularly helpful. "Well, um, not sure. Should be OK. Nothing below
the cabin there to worry about. Press on, I guess." Thanks. Click.

Jens has now grabbed the extension wand for the fire extinguisher -- a
hollow metal pole the length of a harpoon -- and is shoving it down into the
bowl trying to agitate the mixture to a stop. Several minutes have passed,
and a good 10 gallons have streamed their way onto the floor and beyond. Up
front, the first officer has no idea what's going on. Looking behind him,

his view mostly blocked by the circuit-breaker panels and cockpit door, this
is what he sees: a haze of white odorless smoke, and his captain yelping
with laughter and thrusting at something with a long metal pole.

The pilot stands aside, watching Jens do battle. This was a little kid who
dreamed of becoming a 747 captain for Pan Am, the embodiment of all that was
and could still be, elegant and glamorous about aviation. And poor Jens,
whose ancestors plowed this same Atlantic in longboats, ravenous for
adventure and conquest, a 21st century Viking jousting with a broken toilet.

So it goes, and by the time the airplane touches down safely, its plumbing
finally at rest, each and every employee at the cargo hub, clued in by the
amused mechanics who received our distress call, already knows the story of
the idiot who poured dry ice into the crapper. His socks and hundred-dollar
Rockports have been badly damaged, while the cargo net, walls, panels and

placards aboard aircraft 806 are forever dyed a heavenly azure.

The crew bus pulls up to the stairs, and as the pilots step aboard the
looks up and says excitedly, "So which one of you did it?"

haha, very good. As someone who routinely basks in the glamour of conducting aircraft lav service, I can appreciate the blue-juice humor.
I blew a lav up on a MD-80 a few months ago. It wasnt pretty, and I still feel really bad about it. They said it wasnt my fault though. I was dumping the lav and the dump valve got stuck closed, so instead of flushing it was getting overcharged. All of a sudden this guy comes running out of the jetbridge saying the lav blew. It was bad.... The blue juice was all over the bathroom, all over first class, it even ran into the cockpit. The smell alone could kill a horse. Needless to say the plane didnt go out on time the next morning.
While attempting to dump the lav on a 737-700, we realized that it was only coming out in trickles. So, we did what all ramp agents do. Dumbly scratched our heads while maintenance came to the rescue. Turns out SOMETHING was stuck. The plan was to try to pressurize it and get it out. I THINK (I had to work another flight) they wound up shutting the door and pressurizing the plane or something. Anyway, a CEL PHONE was fired out of the drain hole and shattered into hundreds of pieces on the ramp. Apparently, some idiot dropped it in and forgot about it! There's still this blue circle stained on the ground where it hit.
Was that an ATA 737 that happened to? I have a buddy who's a mechanic there and I seem to remember the story of a cell phone in the crapper.

Amazing what ends up down there.

Was that an ATA 737 that happened to? I have a buddy who's a mechanic there and I seem to remember the story of a cell phone in the crapper.

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Nope. SWA, but it wouldn't surprise me if this happened on regular basis to every airline.