THE EXPLODING TOILET and Other Memories

ONE OLD ADAGE  defines the business of flying planes as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Moments of sheer ridiculousness, maybe, are equally as harrowing. One young pilot, when he was 22 and trying to impress the pretty Christine Collingworth with a sightseeing circuit in a friend’s four-seater, highlighted their date by whacking his forehead into the metal pitot tube jutting from the wing. Earning 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 a long time ago, and a long way from this same pilot’s mind during a late-night cargo flight in the winter of 1998:

It’s eleven p.m. and the airplane, an old DC-8 freighter loaded with 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 is tired, and this will be their last leg in a week’s rotation that has brought them from New York to Belgium and back again, onward to Mexico, and now the Caribbean.

They are mesmerized by the calming drone of four high-bypass turbofans and the deceptively peaceful noise created by 500 knots of frigid wind hissing past the cockpit windows. Such a setting, when you really think about it, ought to be enough to scare the living shit from any sensible person. We have no business 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. No mystical ruminations were in the job description for these three airmen, consummate professionals who long ago sold their souls to the more practical-minded muses of technology and luck.

Patrick Smith, born Patrick R. Santosuosso of Revere, Massachusetts, a fourth-generation descendant of Neapolitan olive growers, is one of these consummate professionals. He is the second officer. His station, a sideways-turned chair and a great, blackboard-sized panel of instruments, is set against the starboard wall of the cockpit. Now 34, Patrick has seen his career stray oddly from its intended course. His ambitions of flying gleaming new passenger jets to distant ports-of-call have given way to the 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.

All is quiet, somewhere around mid-flight, when he stands from his seat and walks out of the cockpit, closing the door behind him. Here he enters the only other zone of the aircraft that is accessible during flight, the small entryway vestibule adjacent to the main cabin door. It contains a life raft, oven, cooler, some storage space and the lavatory. His plan is simple enough — to get himself a Diet Coke. 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 threatening 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 small children. The pilot thinks 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 Wal-Mart or Sears, sits in front of the lavatory and is packed with bags of ice. He 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 do I initiate? Which valve do I command closed? Which circuit breakers do I pull? How do I keep us alive and this contraption intact? And what to do, now, with an extra, sopping wet bag of ice? Well, 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. More accurately, 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 organic contributions.

The fluid washes over the ice. He hits the flush button and the block is drawn into the hole and out of sight. He turns, clutching the empty bag and worrying still about the dangers of plastic rings and turtles, picturing some poor endangered hawksbill choking to death. It’s just not 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 many 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. Where it once rested he now finds what can best be described 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.

The pilot closes his eyes tightly for a second, then reopens them. He does this not for theatrics, or to create an embellishment for later use in a story. He does it because, for the first time in his life, he truly does not believe what is cast in front of him.

The fountain grows taller, and he sees that the toilet is not spraying so much as bubbling — a geyser of lathering blue foam topped with white fog. And suddenly he realizes what’s happened. It was not a block of ice, exactly, that he fed to the toilet. It was a block of dry ice.

Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, and to combine it with liquid is to initiate the turbulent and rather unstoppable chemical reaction now underway before 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 Friolator, 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 when the caterers use dry ice, it’s packed apart in smaller, square-shaped bags you can’t miss. Today, for whatever reason, an extra-large allotment was stuffed into a regular old ice cube bag — two pounds of CO2 now 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 crevices. It’s your worst bathroom nightmare at home or in a hotel — clogging up the shitter at midnight and watching it overflow — except this time it’s a Technicolor eruption of poison, dribbling into the seams of an airplane, down into the entrails to freeze itself around cables or short out bundles of vital wiring. And the pilot knows his cataract is not going to stop until either the CO2 is entirely evaporated or the tank of blue death is entirely drained. Meanwhile, like the smoke show at a rock concert, the cabin continues filling with white vapor.

He decides to get the captain.

Our captain tonight is a boisterous and slightly crazy Scandinavian named Jens. A tall, square-jawed Norwegian with graying, closely cropped curls and an animated air of imperious cocksure, Jens is one of those guys who makes everybody laugh simply by walking into a room, though whether or not he’s trying to is never exactly clear. He is sitting in the captain’s chair. The sun has set hours ago but he is still wearing Ray-Bans.

“Jens, come here fast. I need your help.” Jens nods to the first officer and unbuckles his belt. This is an airline captain, a confident four-striper trained and ready for any variety of airborne calamity — engine failures, fires, bombs, wind shear. What will he find back there?

Jens steps into the alcove 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 the 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.” He sighs, nods toward the fizzing, disgorging bowl and says, with a tone of unironic pride: “She’s got quite a head on her, doesn’t she?”

What can they do? And in one of those dreaded realizations pilots are advised to avoid, that insulation between cockpit calm and atmospheric anarchy looks thin indeed. An extrapolated 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 carrying away the evidence. He’s good as dead, but saved, maybe, from immortal embarrassment. A dash of mystique awaits him, the same that met Saint-Exupéry at the 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 interject some clarity into a scene that is obviously and hopelessly absurd. “Get a patch with maintenance and tell them what happened.”

The pilot rushes back to the cockpit to call the company’s maintenance staff. He fires up the high-frequency (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. Trouble is, he will announce his predicament not only to the mechanics, but also to any of dozens of other crews 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 shit and chemicals.

“You say the toilet exploded?” Maintenance is on the line, incredulous but not particularly helpful. “Well, um, not sure. Should be okay. 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 ten 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 the same little kid who dreamed of becoming a 747 captain, the embodiment of all that was, and could still be, glamorous and exciting about aviation. And poor Jens, whose ancestors ploughed this same Atlantic in longboats, ravenous for adventure and conquest. Here he is, a twenty-first century Viking jousting with a broken toilet.

So it goes, and by the time the airplane touches down, 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 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 on board the driver looks up at him. There’s a knowing look in the driver’s eye. “It was you!” he says excitedly, “Wasn’t it?”

The scene of the crime

Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!