Failure to Launch: Why Winston Churchill's ‘Sarcophagus-Like’ Airplane Pod Never Took Off

And so Krypton sent their only son, Kal-El...
And so Krypton sent their only son, Kal-El... / Keystone/GettyImages

Few historical figures possess the idiosyncrasies of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister during World War II. Even when he was not perpetuating eccentricity—like the time he received a doctor’s note to consume “indefinite” amounts of alcohol in the U.S. during Prohibition or when he went skinny-dipping in the Atlantic Ocean—strangeness seemed to orbit him.

Example: his airplane egg.

The photo above is one of the few taken of this proposed technology, which was ostensibly designed to accommodate Churchill during flights. According to the International Churchill Society, the pod was needed in order to reduce the stresses of increased cabin pressure on the Prime Minister’s body. Specifically, his heart, which may not have responded well to the decreasing oxygen. (It’s believed Churchill suffered a heart attack while visiting the White House in 1941, though another doctor disputed the diagnosis when Churchill returned to the UK. He was also prone to pneumonia.)

At the time, planes carrying Churchill rarely went above 8000 feet, which kept him comfortable. But as time went on, newer planes and better flight strategies were headed in the direction of going higher, which allowed aircraft to travel faster and better avoid anti-aircraft guns. The downside was greater pressure. None of the cabins were pressurized as they are today. As Churchill preferred to meet with other world leaders face-to-face—he would ultimately make 25 trips between 1940 and 1945—his planes needed to be comfortable.

The pod was a proposed solution. In 1943, engineers at the Institute of Aviation Medicine developed a pressurized “sarcophagus-like container” that Churchill could climb into that allowed him to escape the increasing cabin pressure. He could smoke, read newspapers, and generally just luxuriate with no risk to his health. If he needed to communicate with staff, there was a built-in intercom system.

Churchill may or may not have climbed into it while the pod was grounded, but he never flew with it. Engineers realized too late that the assembled pod was too large to fit inside Churchill’s plane. In 1944, Churchill “borrowed” a C-54 from the United States. It was large enough for the pod, but then another concern appeared: The structure added too much weight to the aircraft.

While Churchill never made use of the pod, his staff never gave up their attempts to make his trips more comfortable. For one plane, they installed a heated toilet seat. The Prime Minister declared it made his rear end was too hot and it was disconnected.