Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Dirty Little Secret

MIT has a Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The Department is home to the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel and the Flight Transportation Lab, and that Lab is home to one of the four university campuses of the National Center for Excellence in Aviation Operations Research, better known as NEXTOR (the other campuses being at the University of California at Berkeley, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland). In addition to that, MIT sits under one of the departure tracks for Boston Logan International Airport, which was and still is one of the busiest airports in the country. Logan Airport is located just east of downtown Boston in a community known as East Boston, separated from Beacon Hill by the Harbor. In our day, 1974-78, there were two parallel tunnels that brought traffic from Boston out to the Airport; thanks to the Big Dig, there is now a third tunnel, named for Ted Williams, that crosses the Harbor. There is also the Blue Line, a creaky old subway not as creaky as the Green Line (nothing could possibly be that creaky), that brings passengers to a depot where they catch a shuttle bus to the airport terminals. And recently, there has commenced a new sort of bus/subway combination that runs between South Boston, Downtown and the Airport.

Logan Airport's location means that airplanes cross to the north, the south and across the MIT campus. In fact, when the wind is from the south, one can look south across the Charles and see the 747's come swooping in a low turn south of the Prudential Building, then thunder north above the Green Building and East Campus on their way to Europe or the West Coast. There may have been louder airplanes (the DC-9 and the 727 were plenty loud), but nothing was quite as menacing.
The toilets on aircraft are not supposed to vent to the outside the way old trains did (in fact, they warn you not to flush the toilets while the train is in the station), but airplane toilets do have vents to the outside that are used by siphon trucks that suck out all that blue liquid in the plane's toilet holding tanks and take it somewhere to get disposed of. Occasionally those vents malfunction, and if the malfunction occurs when the airplane is in the upper atmosphere, the blue goo leaks out and freezes to the outside of the airplane...and sometimes those frozen chunks of goo break off and fall from the airplane; people whose houses lie under the approach to an airport have reported being pelted with "blue ice".

Plane toilets present other hazards, but mostly to the passengers who use them. Some passengers have reported sitting down on the seat, doing their business, then flushing the toilet - and getting sucked in so tightly that they need help being dislodged. New model aircraft toilets have a vacuum boost that enables them to carry away waste products with minimal use of flush water. Buildings that are designed to environmentally responsible standards have a similar toilet hazard; they also come equipped with toilets that reduce water consumption by use of suction. You can tell a vacuum-assisted toilet by its flush, which sounds like the approach of a tornado. Again, anyone who sits too firmly on the seat is at risk of having their posterior sucked in. However, Man is an ingenious animal who has discovered that the suction can be defeated easily by dropping a cellphone in the toilet (this is what is meant by a dropped call)...which must explain why so many people insist on taking cell phone calls in restrooms.

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