Water, Water Everywhere!

The EPA and Public Health are cracking down on aircraft water supplies. As the British say, “And not before its time.”

I do drink coffee when on flights trusting that the coffee makers will kill the things I have seen living in water lines, service carts and supply hoses. Needless to say, I do not drink water from the fountains. This may be irrational nowadays. I see all sorts of devices to purify the water, but unfortunately, I remember.

I was assigned a clean and sterilization of the potable water system on a DC-6 one day. I finally found the water cart well hidden behind some out-of-service GSE down by the auto shop. Its capacity was about 60 gallons. Its tank had a rectangular profile and had been welded up out of stainless steel sheet, and it had been mounted on a four-wheel trailer.

It was fitted with a hand pump and hose. What it was not fitted with was a tow ring on the handle which meant you pulled it by hand across the ramp or, more usually, held it in your hand while riding precariously on the back of a tug.

Of course the hose fitting that attached to the aircraft was missing. I bet it was in someone’s toolbox. He of course had taken it so he wouldn’t be stuck like I was when he had to service a water system. Such perverse thinking is not uncommon.

I was in luck as for a wonder the stockroom had one. A clamp and I was almost in business but I still had to draw out a gallon of chlorine bleach. None of the fancy disinfectants then. Good old household bleach. At this point there came a choice. In all cases you had to fill the service cart with water. You could add the bleach to the tank of water or, as some did, you could drain out the service hose and pour the bleach into it. This kept the servicing cart full of clean water so you didn’t have to make a trip back to drain, flush and refill it in order to flush the aircraft.

You had to drain the aircraft to make room for the disinfectant. Then fill the aircraft tank by using the hand wobble pump for a lot of stroke pumping it up to the ceiling of the main cabin into the water tank. It took a lot of strokes. If you added bleach to the tank it was diluted. If you had added it to the hose the airplane got a shot of straight bleach first, then water. Hopefully the water pushing the bleach into the tank quickly diluted it. When the aircraft tank was full (indicated by an overflow) you went upstairs. Run water at each faucet until you got the stink of bleach. Then wait a half an hour or so, drain the aircraft and each faucet and then refill with clean water, drain and refill with clean water until there was no more bleach smell. This meant multiple trips back and forth from the water source, which, I may add, was not a clean, closed potable water cabinet either, but just a garden hose off a wall spigot. Was the end carefully capped when not in use? Please! We may complain of OSHA and EPA and Public Health, but they are only responding to our industry’s laxity in the old days.

One amazing thing is that aircraft defy gravity daily by flying. Apparently it gets into the water systems too on some of them for many of the gravity feed systems obstinately refused to flow if they had been drained and refilled. Tank in the ceiling, faucet on sink, water would not flow downhill. An airlock in one of the lines of course. Loosening fitting and bleeding them was sometimes the only way to reestablish water flow.

The stuff in the water lines in older aircraft models had to be seen to be believed. Some of it came from the servicing carts themselves, which were not models of cleanliness. The Electras used clear vinyl tubing for their water system and so you could see what was living in there. Green slime was the nicer stuff. A water fountain was fitted between the two lavatories in the aisle. It had a carbon cartridge filter to try to remove the taste of the water. Unfortunately it also provided a perfect growth site for algae. I never saw any little fish in them, but the stuff growing there was definitely trying to mutate. It was on an Electra that I saw the folly of letting straight bleach get into aircraft water tanks. My old and now extinct company had gotten a charter to fly an Electra down to San Juan and then out to one of the islands where jets dared not land. By this time the Electra was relegated to the Air Shuttle backup and normally the water tanks were empty. For the charter we had to reactivate the water system not to mention the HF radios and Loran system, all of which languished in disuse for years.

My tech supervisors including Big Zeke aided the mechanics at LaGuardia in getting one airplane up for the trip. Zeke had a special interest in it as he was going to fly on the charter too as a Tech Rep. Outside of New York, Boston and Washington National, no one remembered the Electra. One job not needing his assistance was the water system and the mechanic assigned was going to do a thorough job. Somehow he managed to get several gallons of straight chlorine bleach into the water tank. He let it sit a while to make sure everything in there was dead and then filled and flushed it, filled and flushed it. It took a lot of flushes to get rid of the bleach stink.

The HF radios and Loran navigation system were reluctantly brought to life and the next morning the charter loaded and departed with Big Zeke riding in a cockpit jump seat. The first hour passed and all went well. The aircraft was used to flying for an hour, but now it was time to land in Washington or Boston. It probably hadn’t flown more than a continuous full hour in years being locked in the shuttle service. The airplane looked around and it was water, water everywhere and no airport.

The Loran was proving stubborn and would only work if Zeke put his considerable paws on it and shoved it down into the mount for a firm connection. As the L-188 droned on, other things began to deteriorate. Some engine instruments saw fit to die although the big Allisons ran perfectly. Fortunately, the flight instruments functioned well. The crowning blow was the water tank. One of the flight attendants came up and reported the ceiling between the lavatories was wet. That is where the water tank on the Electra resided. Zeke went back to look and confirmed it was wet. He wondered if he should open it, not a great choice given it was in full view of a cabin full of passengers. There was a slumping noise overhead and the ceiling let loose a deluge of water. One whole seam of that water tank opened up like it was a zipper. A gravity feed tank with no air pressure being fed to it? Splitting open? It’s stainless steel. Well, it seems chlorine bleach in high concentration attacks not the stainless, but the welds and brazings used to put it together. Attacked it big time. The airplane made it to San Juan but there it stayed while other arrangements were made to move the passengers. In fact it stayed a week sorting out all its problems. It finally returned to LaGuardia and slipped back into what it knew best. Flying for one hour.

Which comes back to the old story: Procedures, procedures and procedures. Now, in the twilight of my career, I write them for my airline. I carefully research everything from the approved manuals. I hope they follow them. I hope you do too.