Unless you’ve flown first class, or in a private jet, aircraft loos are windowless, cramped affairs that usually reek of cheap sanitizer. But they have come a long way – and rarely get the recognition they deserve.
The first flight (made by Orville Wright, although some conspiracy theorists think otherwise – more on that here), explains Aviation Global News, lasted just 12 seconds – “hardly long enough to get worked up from a bladder perspective, although one may surmise that a number two might have been on his mind”.
But before long, planes were flying for much longer. “It is obvious that someone, somewhere, was the first person to relieve themselves in an aircraft. Who was this urinary pioneer? – history does not record,” laments the website.
Some interesting facts have been recorded, however. Second World War pilots, for example, couldn’t stand the “slop bucket” loos – or “Elsans” – found on board Lancaster bombers. They often overflowed in turbulent conditions, or were tricky to use.
One unidentified airman described his hatred for the contraptions: “While we were flying in rough air, this devil’s convenience often shared its contents with the floor of the aircraft, the walls, the ceiling, and sometimes a bit remained in the container itself.
“It doesn't take much imagination to picture what it was like trying to combat fear and airsickness while struggling to remove enough gear in cramped quarters and at the same time trying to use the bloody Elsan… This loathsome creation invariably overflowed on long trips and in turbulence was always prone to bathe the nether regions of the user. It was one of the true reminders to me that war is hell.”
Airmen 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 known as “Skykem” and were prone to leaking. So next time you’re queuing to use the facilities at 35,000 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.