When you dream as a child of becoming a pilot and wearing the uniform, the slightly silly hat and traveling the world; and you get to hear all about the destinations, the hotels, bars and parties but there are certain things nobody tells you about: one of which is the toilets. I started out flying fighters for the Royal Air Force. We were so maxed out that using the toilet in flight was never a thing you thought about; and despite the copious amounts of coffee a fighter pilot consumes, the length of a sortie for a young fit man was still manageable.
Later, they sent me on missions over northern Iraq to patrol the no-fly zone and I was now tasked on missions up to 5 hours long with multiple air to air refuelling stops (well not quite stops but prodding a basket at 24000 ft at 280 kts). This got me wondering how one would manage the call of nature. Obviously the number 2 was out of the question being strapped into a live ejection seat by a 5 point harness but the number 1 had been achieved in the past by my colleagues successfully.
Before embarking on these missions, the safety equipment team that looks after all of your flying equipment - fire proof suit, g-pants, lifejacket, helmet and gun; would issue us with pee bags. Oh yes, pee bags! These were flat square plastic bags with a funnel arrangement filled with blue crystals, which absorbed the urine and turned it into a gel like solution so it didn’t spill everywhere. After use, you were supposed to seal it and put it in a safe place to be discarded on landing,
The RAF trained us to very high standard in all disciplines but the pee bag was a subject that was never covered in any detail. Luckily, I survived my first tour of duty over Iraq without the need to do the cockpit gymnastics that I imagined would be required to complete the task, and returned to the UK where training continued.
Then one sunny day I was flying North, unusually as a single aircraft, where I would transit at medium level there and back whilst doing some low level flying in-between. On the way home with nothing to do at 26000 ft but look out of the window and keep the jet straight and level without an autopilot I got the urge to pee, and although I could have held it until landing, I though it would be a good opportunity to master the mighty pee bag.
I searched though my pockets and pulled out the said bag and set about the training. Winter flying requires us to wear a dry suit and the divers amongst you will know all about them. They are stiff and uncomfortable but increase your survival time should you find yourself floating around in the British channel after ejecting, waiting for the helicopter. The suit has holes for your head and hands with rubber seals and a six-inch zip across the groin area for accessing ones member. Then there is the thermal underwear and the regular underwear. Lets just say that trying to access the old fellow through multiple layers of clothing whilst trying to maintain height and speed, and juggling a pee bag did not leave me with enough hands when a voice on the Newcastle frequency asked me to descend 2000ft. There I was mid flow, flying with my knees, both hands busy and no way to press the transmit button.
Longest pee of my life!
After leaving the RAF I thought that all my toilet troubles would be over: nice job flying 777’s, ground staff to empty and fill them, what could be better? However, I didn’t go to the airlines I opted for the world of business jets: what could go wrong? Lots, to be frank.
In the business jet world the crew are responsible for everything: refuelling, catering, cleaning and yes, the toilets. Many biz jets only have a toilet at the rear so you need to pass through the cabin and rich people to access. My visits to the toilet have been curtailed by passengers not allowing the pilots to pass through “their” cabin as well as by the rear seats of the aircraft being used to join the mile-high-club. It’s not uncommon to receive a tap on the shoulder by an embarrassed-looking passenger saying that the toilet is blocked or overflowing, so off we go to the toilet we couldn’t access earlier, to attempt unblocking with a coat hanger and marigolds. Funnily enough, the mile high team has vanished!
Emptying the toilets can have their challenges as well during the winter. Aircraft have a tank that is filled with a certain amount of water mixed with blue or green product that supposedly makes it smell better. The tank then fills further with use and this is then sucked out by a toilet rig on the ground. The myths of frozen turds killing people on the ground are just that. Many a time the pipe leading to the outside has frozen and needs to be unblocked. At civilised airfields the toilet rigs have a steam hose that they use to unfreeze the blockage, but elsewhere the operator just shrugs as if to say “all yours”. Remedies include boiling the kettle and using the hot water, then chipping away at the blue/green ice. Or, if all else fails and you can’t empty it, a bottle or two of vodka flushed down the toilet will stop the internal parts freezing until you can get to civilisation.
This is what we call the less glamorous side of being a pilot.