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Why Is This Little-Known American Parachutist Famous in Estonia?

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Muzeo // Public Domain

What’s a modern, abstract sculpture in honor of an obscure American balloonist doing in the capital of Estonia? Good question. The man in question was named Charles Leroux, and though you probably have no idea who he was, he once found fame in the U.S. and abroad demonstrating something that seems commonplace today: parachutes.

Leroux was rumored to be the grandson or great-nephew of Abraham Lincoln (he wasn’t). He wasn’t even named Leroux—his birth name was reportedly the rather more prosaic Joseph Johnson. He appears to have been born in Connecticut in the 1850s. At some point, Leroux must have realized that it would be more profitable and exotic to take on a French-sounding name—especially because he adopted a French-seeming sport that had been making waves worldwide since the late 1700s.

By the time Leroux started tinkering with parachutes and balloons around the 1880s, the French were the undisputed kings of aviation. From the Montgolfier brothers, who invented the first hot air balloon anyone could actually use, to Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who managed to cross the English channel by balloon in 1785, the French had pioneered early flight.

Parachutes, though, were another story. Leonardo da Vinci designed an early prototype, but it took until the early 20th century for the modern version to get a patent. Meanwhile, parachuting was anyone’s game—and, like balloons before it, it was a game for daring showmen.

With a spiffy new name and an apparent daredevil streak, Leroux began to test a parachute of his own design. He was already an accomplished East Coast trapeze artist and gymnast, and he designed a breathtaking parachute to top off his performances. In 1886, for example, he shut down traffic in Philadelphia (performing as “Prof. Charles Leroux”) by climbing 100 feet up the Dime Museum, clad in “light blue silk tights and satin trunks.” Before a packed and terrified audience, he jumped off of the building holding a 16-foot-wide parachute and nearly running into a lamp post (a nearby man wasn’t so lucky—Leroux ran right into him instead). The New York Times report of his feat notes that it was Leroux’s 38th ascent, and that his other accomplishments included jumping off of New York’s High Bridge.

The monument to Charles Leroux in Tallinn, Estonia. Image credit: John Menard via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

 
That was just one of Leroux’s leaps. His feats took him all over the world. In 1889, for example, he demonstrated the parachute he had designed—complete with backpack-style straps—to a group of impressed German officers. (Given that he jumped 1000 meters from a balloon, the equivalent of about 3280 feet, they had reason to be dazzled.) And in 1887, Leroux lent his design to Charles Broadwick, who would become one of the most famous parachutists of all time.

But eventually, Leroux’s derring-do got the best of him. On September 24, 1889, he braved a difficult jump from an airborne hot air balloon in front of an audience of onlookers in Tallinn, Estonia, which was then called Reval. An errant wind swept him away toward the Baltic. A woman supposedly died of heart failure just watching the tragedy. Leroux died, too—his body was recovered by fishermen two days later. Today, a modernist monument in his honor stands in Tallinn, a strange and little-known testament to a man who managed to withstand 238 jumps before his untimely death—and whose daredevil acts with a parachute helped inspire interest in more modern versions of the lifesaving invention.

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Uncovered WWII Blueprints Could Be Used to Restore a Mosquito Plane
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Airbus uncovered something unexpected while shuttering its factory in Flintshire, UK: a trove of aircraft blueprints dating back to World War II. Though the sketches are nearly 70 years old, a team of aviation enthusiasts wants to use them to get an iconic plane back in the air today.

The old technical drawings, of which there are 20,000, include blueprints for the de Havilland Mosquito, Atlas Obscura reports. During the 1940s, the British aircraft performed many roles for the Allied forces as a fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance plane. Even more impressive than its capabilities was its design: Constructed almost entirely from balsa and plywood, it earned the nickname “The Wooden Wonder.” The plane has earned cult status in aviation circles in the time since, and there’s even a group, the People’s Mosquito, dedicated to rebuilding a Mosquito that crashed in 1949.

The wooden body that makes the vessel famous also makes it notoriously difficult to preserve. Many metal aircraft from World War II are still around today, while most of the Mosquitos have rotted beyond recognition. In the face of such challenges, the People's Mosquito team views the newly discovered blueprints as a game-changer. The group's operations director, Bill Ramsey, described the find to BBC Radio as “a complete collection of drawings for every mark and modification that was ever made to a Mosquito.”

If the project members can successfully restore the plane to its former glory, it will be one of four Mosquitos capable of flight today. To achieve that goal they must raise $7.8 million in total. Only then will they fully realize their motto: “To fly; To educate; To remember.”

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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10 Fascinating Facts About Airplane Bathrooms
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iStock

Even if you only fly first class, there’s no getting around the fact that moving your bowels at 36,000 feet is a bit of an ordeal. Airplane lavatories are cramped, turbulence can unseat you, and the line of people waiting just outside the flimsy door can make it difficult to relax.

Despite these drawbacks, airplane lavatories used to be much, much worse. Take a look at 10 facts we’ve uncovered about the past, present, and future of turds on the tarmac.

1. PASSENGERS USED TO CRAP IN BOXES.

 An open cardboard box sits empty
iStock

No matter how boorish your seatmate might be or how loud the wail of the child behind you, be thankful you weren’t one of the earliest pilots or passengers during the aviation explosion of the 1930s and 1940s. Without tanks or separate bathroom compartments, anyone in flight would have make do with pooping in buckets or boxes that would sometimes overflow due to turbulence, splattering poop on the interior; some pilots peed into their shoes or through a hole in the cockpit floor. The first removable bowls were seen at the end of the 1930s, with crew members having to come and empty them out after landing. Removable tanks followed in the 1940s. 

2. THE BRITISH POOPED RIGHT INTO THE SKY.

In 1937, a “flying boat” dubbed the Supermarine Stranraer was put into service by Britain’s Royal Air Force. It didn’t take long for the craft to earn a nickname, the “whistling sh-t House,” owing to one curious design choice: The toilet onboard had no tank or reservoir and opened up to the sky below. If the lid remained open, the passing air would prompt the plane to make a whistling noise.

3. CHARLES LINDBERGH PEED ON FRANCE.

A photo of aviator Charles Lindbergh
Central Press/Getty Images

Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and met with King George V shortly after touching down. The 33-hour flight led him to ask Lindbergh how he had managed his bodily demands during that time; Lindbergh replied that he had peed into an aluminum container and then dropped it while flying over France.

4. FALLING FROZEN POOP WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE ‘80S.

As aviation become more sophisticated, toilets went from merely trying to contain poop to actively trying to fight germs with Anotec, the brand name for the “blue liquid” found in freestanding bowls. Unfortunately, the tanks housing the liquid and the waste were sometimes prone to leakage in the air, prompting giant biohazards to freeze on the hull of planes and then break away as the aircraft began its descent. The apocalyptic poop balls reportedly smashed cars and roofs before Boeing and other manufacturers adopted the vacuum system still in use today.

5. THERE'S BEEN ONE CASE OF CATASTROPHIC GENITAL INJURY.

A look at the interior of a cramped airplane bathroom
iStock

The current pneumatic vacuum system toilets use pressure to siphon waste from the bowl without using much liquid, which keeps the plane from having to carry the additional weight of waste water in the sky. The noise of the violent suction can be unsettling, but it’s rare you’d actually be in any danger. Rare, but not impossible.

An article in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2006 [PDF] reported one case of misadventure due to an airplane toilet. A 37-year-old woman flushed while still seated and created a seal, trapping her on the commode. After being freed by flight attendants, she was examined by doctors and was found to have a labial laceration that resulted in “substantial” blood loss. She was treated and recovered fully.

6. THERE’S A TRICK TO AVOID STINKING UP THE PLANE.

No one wants to be the person who exits a lavatory having polluted the pressurized cabin with a foul odor. According to an ex-flight attendant named Erika Roth, asking an employee for a bag of coffee grounds and then hanging them in the bathroom can help absorb any odors produced by your activities.

7. AIRBUS TOILETS CAN REACH POOP SPEEDS OF 130 MPH.

Dubbed the “Formula 1” of airplane toilets, certain Airbus models circa 2007 could produce unbelievable suctioning power. In a demonstration for a journalist (above), their A380 model could move sewage at speeds of 130 miles per hour. The speeds are necessary when bathroom waste needs to travel the length of the passenger cabin to the sewage tanks in the back.

8. THEY’RE GETTING SMALLER.

Already short on space, airplane lavatories might become even more cramped in the future. A 2017 report by Condé Nast Traveler indicated that as older planes are taken out of service, newer-model passenger planes are coming in with modified bathrooms that are up to two inches smaller in width and depth. Industry observers believe the shrinking bathrooms could pose problems for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those who need to accompany their child into the bathroom.

9. BOEING MIGHT HAVE PERFECTED THE AIRPLANE POOP EXPERIENCE.

A glimpse at Boeing's new UV-equipped sanitized bathroom
Boeing

In 2016, the aeronautics company announced a possible solution to the germ-infested poop closets found on planes. Their self-cleaning lavatory uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9 percent of all surface bacteria. The light would be activated between occupancies to sanitize the space for travelers. Boeing also envisions this lavatory of the future to be touchless, with a self-activating seat and sink.

10. THERE’S A REASON THEY STILL HAVE ASHTRAYS.

Ever wonder why airplane bathrooms have ashtrays built into the wall or door even though smoking is banned on virtually all flights? Because federal regulations still require them. The thinking is that someone sneaking a smoke will still need a place to put it out, and the risk of fire is reduced if they have a proper receptacle.

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