Friday, March 9, 2012

The BAE 146: A Life

Northwest Avro RJ (a BAE 146 variant) at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, 2004

In her new novel Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston starts off one of the in-flight inter-chapters (a descent into the Kingdom of Bhutan) by describing the British Aerospace "146-100 STOL Regionals, jets famous for their tight turns and short landing and takeoff specs" (78).

This isn't the only thing the BAE 146 is known for. It's also known (to many "rampers," anyway) for having a really tricky exterior lavatory dumping mechanism: the embedded valve on the outside of the plane where you have to hook up a big black hose in order to evacuate the urine and feces collected over thousands of airborne miles.

I remember when I was trained to operate this type of valve: it was under the runway lights on the tarmac one summer night when our SkyWest aircraft were suddenly replaced by Air Wisconsin's jets—Air Wisconsin is another regional carrier for United Airlines. Air Wisconsin flew the BAE 146 planes at that time, and learning to park, clean, and prepare these unfamiliar jets for flight was like learning a new language. And the lavatory dump valve was like the subjunctive: full of its own nuances and hidden possibilities.

The lavatory cart is basically an enclosed reservoir of human waste on wheels; look out your window seat and you'll recognize it as a low-profile, squarish trailer with a big black tube like a snake coiled or curled kinkily around the top. At my airport, once a week a septic pump truck (like the kind typically seen at campgrounds and servicing Port-a-Jons) would drive onto the tarmac and empty the cart. We would use the cart every evening (and sometimes between flights during the day) to empty out the toilets on the planes—when the crew would call in from fifteen minutes out, they might say they needed "lav service," which meant that it was time to haul out the lav cart and do our duty.

Needless to say, it was not the preferred job among airline ramp workers. Despite the powerful aroma-cancelling power of so-called "blue juice" (the admixture of chemicals inserted into the toilet to counteract the smell of waste), one might still encounter random spurts and sprays, or errant turds, while servicing the lav.

The lav cart has a six-inch diameter hose that hooks up to the side of the plane, and then there is a release lever on the plane that lets all the blue fecal matter and blue urine to travel down a loop-d-loop path into the reservoir. On the newer Canadair Regional Jets, this is a fairly neat and tidy task: the release lever is just to the side of valve. When you're done, the valve simply flaps back and seals in place, and the separation of plane, poop, and person seems clear and distinct.

On the BAE 146, however, the release for the toilet chamber is actually located inside the valve itself, and basically you have to hook up the hose and then manipulate a spring-loaded interior rod to disengage the valve and get things flowing. At the end of the dump, you have to twist and push the rod just so to reinsert and seal the valve (which you cannot see, but must feel via the rod).

One of the first times I did this, after I finished shaking the loose ends of blue toilet paper wads and dangling fecal matter into the reservoir on the lav cart, I looked up at the side of the plane and realized that the valve was missing: I was staring up into the underside abyss of the airplane toilet. I had not correctly reinserted the valve. I glanced in the hose—nothing. I looked around on the tarmac frantically, but to no avail. It was in the lav cart, somewhere in a foot-deep pool of shit, piss, and blue juice that had been stewing for a week—the septic truck was due to the airport the next day.

Luckily, the accouterments for this part of the job included gauntlet-style thick rubber gloves, and so I simply reached in, probed around with my fingers, swishing this way and that, around unknown clumps and viscera, until I found the metal valve. I fished it out, shook it off, and reinserted it in the side of the plane.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a close call. That plane could have been grounded for days—who knows where a replacement valve would have been located, and how long it would have taken for the airline to ship it up to Bozeman, Montana using the inter-airline mail system? I remember that my co-worker (who was busy dealing with lost baggage claims while I had started to clean the aircraft) nearly gagged when I described what had happened. For myself, I was more than a little thrilled by the whole experience. I had put my hand in that taboo nether region, that most abject place, where shit is collected and dealt with as if covertly, beyond the view of thriving, bustling progress. I feel like I really know the BAE 146, in a special way.

The BAE 146 is also the plane that happens to appear in the background on the cover of my book:

The BAE 146 is no longer in commercial service in the U.S., and yet my own encounters with this aircraft continue to occur: in literature, in images, and in lingering memories like this one.