The Debunker: Do Airplanes Dump Frozen Waste in Flight?

by Ken Jennings

November is here, and you know what that means—National Aviation History Month! Yes, like all good citizens, you undoubtedly wait all year for this fun-filled celebration of great achievements in the history of flight. But as you get together with loved ones during this festive flight-themed season, we want to make sure you don't perpetuate any myths and misconceptions. Ken Jennings, high-flying Jeopardy! whiz, is here all month to correct a lot of common aviation knowledge that's just plane wrong.

The Debunker: Do Airplanes Dump Frozen Waste in Flight?

When Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic flight and met all the crowned heads of Europe, Britain's King George V had a question. "There is one thing I long to know," he said. "How did you pee?" Lindbergh, put at ease by the question, let His Majesty in on the secret: he had a funnel attached to an aluminum container, which he dropped somewhere over the French countryside. "I was not going to be caught with the thing on me at Le Bourget (Airport)!" he said.

The Debunker

Lindbergh's emergency evacuation was just the first in a long line of close encounters with airborne waste. There have been dozens of news stories documenting the phenomenon of "blue ice"—frozen waste falling from commercial airline toilets. Sometimes the frosty biowaste tears holes in roofs and smashes cars. On TV's Six Feet Under—though never in real life—a woman was even killed by a falling chunk of blue ice. Media accounts of these incidents often include words like "jettisoned" or "ejected," because someone in the newsroom assumed that the pilot accidentally pulled a Lindbergh and opened the tanks in mid-air.

In fact, commercial airliners have no mechanism for pilots to flush the sewage tank mid-flight. In the 1980s, airplane toilets mixed human waste with hundreds of gallons of a blue disinfectant called Anotec, the same stuff they use in Port-a-Potties. Occasionally a holding tank would leak, and a gross blob of poopsicle would freeze onto the exterior of the plane. As the plane descended to land, the ice would thaw and fall, posing a hazard to the plane itself or to residents below. So, in 1982, Boeing began to install those vacuum suction toilets we still use today. These new, more reliable systems aren't prone to "blue ice" leaks. The FAA still receives complaints of weird-smelling stuff tearing through houses, but they've found that these complaints tend to spike in the fall. Their theory: migrating birds are the most common falling-poop culprit nowadays.

Quick Quiz: What flavor is 7-Eleven's beloved blue Slurpee?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.