Ask the pilot

By popular demand: The full, unexpurgated story of what happens when dry ice is mixed with blue toilet acid at 33,000 feet.

Topics: Air Travel, Ask the Pilot, Business,

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 shit 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 small 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 those 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 shitter 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. Exupéry 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 shit 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 driver looks up and says excitedly, “So which one of you did it?”

Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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