The First Airborne Flushable Toilet

By Larry Elman
[Editor’s comment: It is not often that we come across an opportunity to both preserve a historical record, but to be totally
entertained by it as well. When relating this story to me, Larry let slip that he had promised to produce a version of it to the
then editor of the AAHS Journal, and never had, I immediately insisted that he fulfill his promise. We hope you enjoy this
story as much as we have.]

This year Hayden Hamilton, AAHS managing editor, informed Enter Harvey Lippincott, the Enforcer
me that it was about time I fulfilled a promise I made to the Harvey H Lippincott was my friend, my boss at CAHA,
AAHS decades ago, but he added that I had to explain how CAHA’s founder and “Guiding Light,” and a man I deeply and
this promise came to be. So here is an article that was initially humbly respect and admire. He was the East Coast pillar of
drafted close to 50 years ago, preceded by its origin. AAHS, and he forced United Aircraft (now United Technologies)
to save priceless artifacts other aircraft companies threw out.
But he was also the guy who ordered, cajoled, bribed and
The Setting enforced as needed that the annual Northeast Aero Historians
In 1964, I joined the volunteer staff of the Connecticut meeting worked. Sometimes, Phil O’Keefe, Moe Ertman, Bob
Aeronautical Historical Association (CAHA), which eventually Stepanek, several others and even me, were dragooned into
gave birth to the New England Air Museum (NEAM). NEAM whatever plots might succeed, even when CAHA was not the
is the name by which most of you know CAHA today. Within host.
months I was doing historical research and by 1965 I was Then came one of those years when CAHA was the host.
one of Harvey Lippincott’s “troubleshooters.” That also was On Tuesday evening a few days before the conference, as I was
the year that the annual Northeast Aero Historians meetings leaving my office at United Aircraft Research Labs, Harvey
began. This conference, always in October on Canadian phoned. “Larry, you are on as a replacement speaker for Friday
Thanksgiving weekend so that our Northern friends could evening. Get a full presentation ready.” “Harvey, I am not
participate, included many aviation historical organizations on this year’s list of additional speakers, and today is Tuesday.
(AAHS, Cross & Cockade, Wingfoot and others), but was I have no research anywhere near ready to present – it’s
primarily composed of air museums north of Virginia, south of impossible.” “Don’t argue, just DO IT!!” A lengthy argument
mid-Canada, and east of the Mississippi. Included in addition ensued, and in anger I told Harvey that if he forced the issue I
to CAHA were the Smithsonian (National Air and Space would give a talk on the history of airborne flushable toilets.
Museum), the Air Force Museum from Wright-Patterson AFB, “That is disgusting and would embarrass CAHA. Don’t you
the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, the Franklin Institute dare!” “Then get someone else!” “No, you are IT!!” More
of Philadelphia, sometimes even the Naval Aviation Museum argument. The call ended in an impasse. So I went home and
from Florida (when it could find a speaker able to himself fund wrote an article on the History of Airborne Flushable Toilets.
the trip) and many others. As they were founded, a number After I relate the remainder of this tale, I will provide excerpts
of additional museums were added – Long Island’s Cradle of from that article – excerpts because my notes are long lost,
Aviation Museum, New York harbor’s Intrepid Sea, Air and and because I do not claim this is an exhaustive full historian’s
Space Museum and several others. The annual location varied version of the many incidents and devices involved in this
from year to year and museum to museum in a circuit. I do not subject.
know if this meeting still exists, but I did attend what I believe
was its 20th anniversary meeting. If it does still exist, GO TO Friday’s Event
IT – it is wonderful. Also, let me know the current status! Friday evening, of course, Harvey asked what talk I had
One firm policy was that the host museum for that year prepared. When I told him, another argument began and he
MUST provide a set number of additional presenters and topics explained in painful details what he did to mutineers on the
that either never got used, or were presented in addition to the Good Ship CAHA. But of course, by then it was too late.
pre-announced program. The reason was quite simple – there I was just about 20 minutes into the presentation, when
was an emphasis on getting presentations from early pioneers, the electricity failed in the hotel ballroom where the talks were
many of whom were elderly and in questionable health. After the given that year. The manager rushed in with many flashlights,
premature deaths of a few and the unexpected hospitalizations explained that the estimate to repair would be about 15 minutes,
of others, the firm “extra presentations” rule was enacted so that and said that we should all go out on the adjoining veranda
there would be few, if any, blank spots in the program. where some refreshments would be set up.

to delay submittal until I had the time, but wanted a promise
that AAHS would get first publication rights. There was one
more condition imposed by the editorial board – Harvey had to
be the one to give me this news. I promised the article.
Yes, Harvey and I made peace and we served together on the
CAHA Board of Directors for many years. Like most aviation
historians of my generation (and the one before that as well – I
was the youngest member of the CAHA Board of Directors by
about 25 years or more), I very much miss Harvey. My paper?
I have given it verbally many times. As I finally send a written
version to the AAHS, I dedicate it to Harvey H. Lippincott, a
superb aero-historian.

The First Airborne Flushable Toilet I know of
Vickers Wellington; the arrow points to the typical type Through CAHA, I had the good luck to meet and know
chemical toilet provided for military crews at this time (1939- several WWI pilots, but I never had the nerve to ask them what
1941. (RAF photo) methods were used for this problem in their day. Chemical
toilets came into use probably during the Depression or before
As we idled away there, a high dignitary from the – they were in the B-17 and other multi-engine aircraft of that
Smithsonian walked over. (I believe he was the Chief Curator time. But for this article, primarily on “flushable toilets,”
of the National Air and Space Museum, but this was about half those do not qualify. The first aircraft that does qualify
a century ago.) He told me two or three hysterically funny tales was the Boeing 314 “Clipper.”
on the subject. I told him I would love to have known those The Boeing 314 “Clipper” first flew in 1938, and entered
sooner as they would have fit right in. “So use them now. But active airline service in 1939. As the expected passengers
I make one condition – you must give me attribution.” “Sure, would be wealthy, all sorts of amenities were offered, including
but why?” “I am having too much fun watching Harvey’s red the first airborne flushable toilet. It simply “flushed” overboard
face.” A few other eminent aero historians then matched his – after all, the whales and dolphins below were not expected to
tales with others, but each one with the same condition about complain of environmental hazards to the yet-to-be-established
Harvey’s red face. EPA. But early-on, trouble arose with the Clippers operating
We went back in and I finished my talk, with their additions, out of Florida – clogged toilets.
of course. It had gone well. Later in the convention, Harvey, This particular sub-system had been diligently tested over
with another very red face and two accompanying gentlemen Puget Sound and found reliable, so the big Clipper was flown all
hemming him in, informed me that a “rump meeting” of the way to Seattle from Miami and tested again. No problem; so
the AAHS Journal editorial board had met – a quorum was back to Miami. Clogged toilet on a run in the Caribbean. Back
obtained by telephone – and decided that several pages should to Seattle. Passed the test again. Back to Miami. Clogged
be reserved for a written version of my talk. They allowed me again. By the third or fourth such cycle, Wellwood Beall, then
chief engineer of Boeing Aircraft, flew to Miami to personally
analyze conditions. Bear in mind this was as the United States
was emerging from the Great Depression. “Normal folks” used
the cheapest thinnest toilet paper they could find. “Rich guys”
used that era’s equivalent of Charmin. Beall discovered that
the thicker toilet paper was jamming the dump valve. Cynics
say that this assisted in Beall eventually becoming president
of Boeing. Personally I know of enough other things in which
he proved his engineering skills as well as his economic good
sense that I do not agree, but leaving that comment in has
gotten me many a laugh.

Boeing B-29
The Boeing B-29 did not have a flushable toilet, but this
minor tale of history is too good to omit on such a technicality.
A Chemical Toilet was installed aft of the bomb-bay on all
B-29s. Then the “advance of modern technology” caused
the installation of a radar set for bombing through overcast.
Douglas DST lavatory was located in the tail of the aircraft. The controls for it could be located in only one place. Many
The chemical toilets were located behind the doors aft of the a radar officer flew into Japanese skies seat-belted to a
individuals. (Douglas photo from the AAHS archives) chemical toilet… What other crew-members felt about
2 American Aviation Historical Society Journal, Summer 2016
this is unrecorded, even in the few oral histories I have been
involved in.

DC-8 Flight Test, Part I: Background
I was a “coop” student at MIT, which meant that I
overloaded and summer-schooled like mad in order to do a six
month apprenticeship in 1958. Mine was in Douglas Flight
Test, Santa Monica, Calif., as the DC-8 was going through flight
test and certification. The engineer at the adjoining desk was
assigned several responsibilities in the testing and qualification
of the restroom and toilet subsystem for the DC-8, so I am an
eye-witness to what followed.
Boeing had been able to use the KC-135 program to solve
many of the problems that would face early four-engine swept- A modern-day flushable aircraft toilet from an unidentified
wing transports and airliners. Douglas had to play catch up. jet airliner.
Because of this, for financial reasons, Douglas chose to have
no prototype as such. Every one of the DC-8s in the flight
test programs were to be reconfigured and sold to airlines (at not as good from the quality-of-test-data view. But it did ensure
slightly reduced prices) when certification had been achieved. that the torture test was done with emotion and vigor!
Because of this, many “bug fixes” on the earliest DC-8 aircraft This idea was totally the wrong answer for testing the
would be limited to what would have the least impact on the restrooms because human needs among the torture testers did
aircraft already produced and flying. Boeing, with the “Dash not match the needs for statistical data as to restroom reliability
80” prototype that it flew for many years, had made the wiser in a crowded aircraft in flight with nowhere else to go. (Yes,
decision. pun intended…)
Donald W. Douglas Sr. was a much revered figure who Engineer brilliance strikes again! The excess toilets – in
enjoyed a good reputation with most Douglas employees. fact, the entire restrooms – were placed on wooden stilts in the
Donald Jr. was nowhere near as well respected, and employee center of the main aisle of the production floor at Santa Monica.
morale and relations deteriorated in any department that he was The final DC-7s were being produced there and production at
placed in charge of. About the time I started my apprenticeship, that time was in full swing with crowds of employees. Why
Donald Jr. took over as VP Flight Test. This did not help the stilts, you ask? Airborne restrooms on jet airliners deposit
problems already mentioned. all their waste in septic tanks in the belly of the aircraft; the
When choosing where to go for my apprenticeship, I had septic tanks were installed between the stilts under the raised
visions of the Douglas Flight Test that made great progress on restrooms. A plea was made for production workers to use
the D-558-II and other technological marvels of the early 1950s. these and provide the needed data.
When I arrived, Donald Jr. was the VP running Flight Test, the Problems occurred at once. For the tests to be valid, the
DC-8 program was in a panic and Flight Test was also having engineer sitting beside me had to know both quantity and quality
“fire drills” on Thor, C-133, B-66 and several more. If you of the waste (as well as type), opinions of comfort, judgment as
wonder at the competence and view-points of my colleagues – to the sinks, etc. His first attempt was a clipboard with data
some superb, some mediocre – bear these pressures in mind. I and opinion forms and a pencil on a string, all positioned by the
will for the most part stick to the problems of the DC-8 restroom paper towel dispenser.
subsystem. I seriously doubt whether any obscene reply can be made
in English or Spanish that he did not encounter in the mostly-
DC-8 Flight Test, Part II: How to Flight Test a Flying Toilet useless data. To increase the strain on him, the flow of persons
on the Ground using the facilities was much too slow. The design condition, I
In order to be sure that when the flight test aircraft were was told, was a tourist class flight, New York to Paris, all seats
ready be reconfigured to go to the airlines all cabin parts were filled, and a large percentage of the restrooms out of order.
on hand, Douglas began producing cabin equipment while The rumor mill claimed that the spec also laid out a rule as
certification was still in progress. This meant storing a large to the number of persons finding airline food to cause gastro-
number of seats, food carts, overhead bins and of course the rest intestinal problems. I personally think the rumor mill was
rooms well in advance of when they would be installed. But working overtime on that one! To obtain adequate statistical
how could those items be tested without a flow of passengers? data for certification, actual usage had to match that of several
For overhead bins, seats and the like, Douglas assembled a flights per week of the sort already described. This was vastly
force of persons to go through and in effect “torture test” cabin more than the employees were actually using the toilets. And,
furnishings in a mock-up. It is too long ago to remember of course, documenting which “passenger” had done “what” to
exactly, but I believe at least some of these people were Douglas match with what the specs required meant great originality on
employees who were given the choice to join this effort or be laid that engineer’s part as he interpreted the few readable forms he
off. Quite effective from the personnel department viewpoint; received.
But he had a solution. One day I had to pass through
the production floor to reach my assigned test stand. The
production restrooms were all padlocked shut. On at least one
of them hung a large sign, with an arrow pointing to the toilets
under test. The text beside the arrow read,


Exactly who ordered the sign became a topic of great
Next someone reminded my harried colleague that women
often ignored signs to deposit feminine supplies in the provided
waste-basket, but flushed them instead. Some operations
analysis genius was tasked to devise a formula to predict and
analyze this. Because too large a percentage of production A more modern version of the “tasteful little white cart.”
workers were male, one wall of our office was designated as
a rack to store menstrual supplies. They were procured in a
manner to match market share of each brand, size and type,
which of course required another “Ops” study. Overall quantity
was decided by management as the point at which purchasing totally different fittings for the in and out hoses, or their adequate
received the best wholesale price cuts on a very large purchase. sealing. Our conceited colleague connected the cart wrong and
A huge inventory formed in the rack, presenting a hazard to all got about 55 gallons of toilet material dumped on him under
personnel in that row as it often fell on them. pressure. He came up to our office looking for revenge on his
A set of rules intended to produce a rigid statistical younger colleague, but the boss took one whiff and sent him
schedule was supplied as to what selection (brand, type, etc.) home.
was to be flushed every few hours. Suggesting modifications to
that schedule by inventing reasons to “bend” the rules became Back to Boeing: The Missing Engine
an office pass-time. By then, the poor engineer stuck with all Traditionally, every fluid in an aircraft is dyed a different
this wanted REVENGE on anyone and anything, so he made color so that if there is a leak you know what is leaking and can
it a habit to carry his enormous load of these items through find the leak. It was just about then that the aviation industry
the typing pool. Please note this was in the 1950s when decided that all restroom liquid, before or after use, would be
such behavior would be considered not just bad taste, but the a certain shade of blue that has remained the same for the past
actions of a pervert. He also began “accidentally” tripping, and 60 years or so. Remember that as we leave the DC-8 and move
dumping the entire collection in some pretty secretary’s lap. possibly – to less polluted waters – at Boeing.
His extensive bragging about his love life from before About a decade after my apprenticeship, a farmer was
this project had been assigned to him now came back to bite sitting on his tractor and plowing his field, when suddenly he
him. A betting pool developed over the question as to whether was startled by a loud noise and a shower of dirt. There in the
those dumped on were girls who had jilted him or the ones he next row not too many feet away sat a still-smoking jet engine,
was making a play for. He never answered our inquiries. This complete with its nacelle, but missing its airplane. At the same
entire situation caused repeated visits from personnel. It was time, several miles above him, a very startled B-727 flight crew
pretty clear that Donald Jr. was running into additional morale began the emergency procedures for an engine malfunction
problems even if, in retrospect, the entire thing seems very with one slight non-normal added problem – no engine and no
funny. nacelle. They landed safely, but a bit perturbed.
Extensive investigation showed that the fan-jet had thrown
DC-8 Flight Test, Part III: Where Does It All Go? its blades that, unfortunately, had severed the nacelle mounting
Remember the septic tanks? On an operational aircraft, bolts, allowing the engine to meet the farmer. But why? More
these are “flushed” by the ground crew between flights, using investigation led the NTSB to conclude that foreign object
a trailer that was supposed to always be painted a gleaming damage (FOD) had broken the blades, and that the FOD in this
white. (Don’t ask me if that ever changed; I have no idea.) It case was balls of ice. Then someone noticed that the access
was always referred to as “The tasteful little white cart.” It was panel used by the ground crew to connect “The Tasteful Little
huge. White Cart” was not properly sealed – and further examination
Our unlucky engineer “passed the buck” on this one. He showed the caps on the piping were not sealed properly either.
claimed some sort of injury and demanded that an older (and The NTSB decided that leakage from there had become the ice
very conceited) engineer do the flushing that was to be part of balls.
the test report. He even offered the man the manual, but as I The final NTSB report indicated that some blades were
mentioned the man was very conceited. He did not read it. recovered and they showed an unusual stain by a certain shade
Unfortunately, no one had yet thought through having of blue liquid, flecked with brown particles. This NTSB Report
4 American Aviation Historical Society Journal, Summer 2016
The modern-day flushable toilet found in the first class cabin Whether flushable or chemical, aircraft toilets are still subject
of a Boeing 777. to the abuses meted out by passengers. In researching this
images for this article, we even found a case where $1M
plus in gold bullion had been dumped into one.

ran in Aviation Week three days after my speech on Airborne simply misinformed, the docent would quietly correct the
Flushable Toilets. My mailbox overflowed with copies of that teacher aside from the class and make an offer of assistance that
report mailed to me by colleagues. Every copy was marked, was usually accepted.
“Now you know what happens when the shit hits the fan.” For those teachers who rejected the offer, a special
procedure developed, which is no longer followed – NEAM no
Aircraft and Airline Not Specified longer has the required aircraft. But, to go on with the tale, in
Many of you have undoubtedly wondered about the any class there is ALWAYS some loud obnoxious brat who can
vacuum system that is used to assist the flush process. Many easily be identified. The Brat is enticed away from the class
of you have probably been regaled by stories of persons being and made an offer. If he performs a task as requested, he will
sealed to the toilet seat by this process. I do not have statistics, be told why later and the result will enhance his reputation with
nor am I a qualified eye-witness, but I have enjoyed many an his fellow students. He has three assignments. The first is to
airline flight when I have explored this “urban legend” with demand that the tour include the C-119. The second is to ask
flight attendants. the teacher what that black funnel-shaped thing at the forward
I have many times been told that the proper method of end of the cabin is.
releasing the passenger if this happens is part of training at Most teachers who fit the profile just described will have no
many airlines. I’ve even been told of a case where the captain idea what the darn thing is, but rather than show ignorance, they
instructed the cabin crew to NOT release a passenger as they will lift and examine it. Quite often they will then describe it to
were rather close to final approach and the vacuum was an the class as a device to allow the paratrooper’s Jump Master to
adequate substitute for a seat belt. What I can authoritatively speak to the pilot. The Brat’s final task is to ask the teacher to
tell you is that if this does happen, it is much more likely to demonstrate its use, putting their face in it.
occur with a female passenger. Think about it. As the class enters the bus to go home, the Brat has the use
of the Relief Tube explained to him.
A Non-Flushable Last Tale – Just One I Could Not Resist The staff has never seen this procedure need to be repeated
As I mentioned, I served on the CAHA/NEAM staff for on any teacher from a school where that has been done once.
many years. CAHA/NEAM, in return for such state support as For some strange reason after that, all teachers from that school
land to place the museum on, agreed many decades ago, that if district are courteous and appreciative to the docents.
any Connecticut public school wanted to have an aviation field
trip, admission of teachers and students would be free and a In Conclusion
docent would be provided. My original notes for this article were lost years ago. If the
We rapidly noted that in an almost predictable number of editor has nerve enough, and if my notes ever turn up, a sequel
cases, some teachers would dismiss the docent and proceed might be written. But I am certain that I am not the only old-
to inform the students all about aircraft of which they knew timer who has witnessed or researched incidents fitting to this
nothing. A docent tradition developed. If the teacher were topic. Other authors may be welcomed and encouraged. Q