Fly like a fighter: ‘To pee or not to pee’

December 17, 2012

I recently talked with a reader who had just read my first article, “Look ma, one hand,” and I was intrigued by the burning question on his mind. The article described an eight-hour flight in an F-15 where my right hand got stuck between the ejection seat and the side panel as I reached for a jug of water, and where I had to fly formation for a while bumping the stick with my knees. His question was: “If you planned on drinking a gallon of water over an 8 hour flight, how were you going to pee?”

Good question. The answer is “piddle packs.” The military version we used a while back was essentially a heavy vinyl bag about four inches by 10 inches. Inside the bag were three or four compressed sponges—they looked like thin cardboard when dry but would expand to full size when put in liquid. After you were done you rolled the open end closed and clamped it shut with heavy twist ties.

The process for me involved first safing the ejection seat, and then unstrapping my lap belt and laying each half away from the seat onto the side panels, getting the shoulder straps behind me, unbuckling my parachute harness, and finally unzipping and taking care of business.

The F-16 has a joystick mounted on the right side just under the canopy rail, and this has led to some interesting piddle pack stories. At our regular continuation training meetings we were usually briefed on the recent safety incidents around the Air Force. One of them left us in tears from laughing. An F-16 pilot at 35,000 feet had to use his piddle pack and sometime after unstrapping his lap belt, the belt interacted with the side-mounted joystick and caused the jet to do a few aileron rolls and lose a few thousand feet of altitude.

Not only is this a true story, but it wasn’t the only time it happened.

Other than being a funny story, there are some lessons to take away for our general aviation flying. We all know about AOPA’s efforts to grow the pilot population, and in my mind this should also include a push to gain more general aviation family and friends as passengers—who aren’t afraid to get in that “tiny little airplane” and fly with you on some journey. This means encouraging them to eat normally and be hydrated before flying, and insisting they use the restroom “one more time” before you strap them into your airplane.

When my brother’s three boys were younger, he would keep a large mason jar in his van for those long drives in which he would only stop when the van needed gas. He would drive more than six hours without a break. He called the mason jar the Range Extender. Ok for the boys but his wife didn’t appreciate his logistical plans. I do carry piddle packs in my airplane, but they are for “emergency use only.” With passengers I plan shorter legs and know where the alternate airports are along the route just in case.

The last thing to be aware of is that your passengers will often have questions you would never even think of. Make sure you slow down enough to give them the opportunity to ask those questions before you start the engine and put yourself in “Go” mode.

We need more advocates, so let’s do our part to keep our passengers comfortable.