It Existed: Churchill's High-Tech Flight Pod


Behold the 'Churchill Egg. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Are you a World War II-era British prime minister looking to fly in style aboard a Royal Air Force transport plane?

Well then look no further than the so-called "Churchill Egg," a sort of pressurized sarcophagus designed to safely house Winston Churchill on high-altitude flights.

Escape pod.
Image via TBFTP

The device never saw use, but its conception and history fascinate me -- and not just because it brings to mind Donald Pleasence's egg-like escape pod from John Carpenter's 1981 classic "Escape From New York."

Let's begin with the aircraft. If you're familiar at all with WWII bombers, then you probably know the Avro Lancaster. This four-engine night bomber saw a great deal of action in its time, but the RAF also needed a reliable transport aircraft, so Avro built a variant designed for human cargo: the Avro York (pictured below). And when Churchill required a personalized wartime flying conference room, a specialized variant took form: the Ascalon.

But pimping out this ride was far from a simple task. They couldn't just throw in some nice rugs, a writing desk and call it a day. That's where the Egg comes in.

Avro York in flight over Germany, 1949.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

Today we take pressurized flight cabins for granted, but the 1940s were a different time. In order to cope with high-altitude flights, passengers had to use oxygen masks. And especially during wartime, higher altitudes offered less turbulence and greater protection from antiaircraft fire.

According to The Churchill Centre, doctors were concerned about the 69-year-old prime minister's heart. Unpressurized cabins (the norm at that time) simply wouldn't cut it, and a bulky oxygen mask was to be avoided. So the Institute of Aviation Medicine designed him a transparent, pressurized chamber with an elaborate intercom system. Here, Churchill could relax, work, sleep and of course smoke during flight.

Unfortunately, this amazing innovation never made its way inside an aircraft. It proved too large for the Ascalon's fuselage and was deemed to0 heavy and impractical for the Ascalon's American C-54 successor. As far as anyone can tell, the current whereabouts of the egg itself (assuming it wasn't scrapped) remain unknown.

Still, I can't help but marvel at the possibility of Winston Churchill smoking in style inside a high-tech pressurized casket of proper British refinement. Think about it the next time you board a flight.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.