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Most Recent

Oh, The Places You'll Go

July 25, 2014


When most pilots consider the hours they have logged in the air, the time usually remains just hours to them. The recorded flights are remembered as a cross country, or as an instrument flight, or as the hour spent learning recovery from unusual attitudes. But as time aloft accumulates it can also be viewed using other measurements. By the time a student pilot has qualified for his Private License, has gained a bit of experience and is ready to begin learning to fly the airplane on instruments, he has probably spent about a week apart from the surface of the earth. That would be a total of seven twenty four hour days spent hanging suspended above the earth, or 168 hours total. Later, at the 500 hour milestone our pilot has been missing from the earth for over two and a half weeks, and on the day he logs his one thousandth hour he will have spent a total of more than forty one twenty four hour days someplace other than on the planet where he was born.

Those of us who have flown most of our lives as a profession rack up a prodigious amount of hours in the air and the high timers among us have lived aloft literally for years.

As does any endeavor that requires humans to live in an alien environment, spending large blocks of time airborne requires planning for the physiological needs that occur for all of us, such as eating, sleeping and yes, going to the bathroom. Of the three primary needs mentioned, two can be fudged a bit. All of us have flown when hungry enough to eat a hobby horse and most have been in the air when so fatigued we needed to hold our eyes open with our fingers. But going to the bathroom as we all know, is something with finite limits.

I can remember numerous 'high pressure' situations in the years I was spending huge amounts of time in the sky and most of them ended well, with a heartfelt sigh of gratitude in some FBO's rest room. But a few didn't.

One occasion was more embarrassing than critical and it occurred during a sales trip while I was working as a Demonstration Pilot for Cessna. On this day we were doing a demo business trip in a new 414 with a small company's CEO and his wife. The plan du jour was for Ernie, my fellow Zone demo pilot to fly the trip, while I remained back in the cabin with the customers to answer any questions and to sell the advantages of business travel, 'private and pressurized'.

We had departed Atlanta in air as smooth as glass made only smoother by Ernie's touch on the controls. Fifteen minutes into the flight I was pouring coffee for our customers to demonstrate the crème de la crème of business aircraft ownership; having what you want when you want it. As the hot liquid from the refreshment center splashed into the cups I'd placed on the folding executive tables, it suddenly hit me. I. Had. To. Pee.

Oh no, I thought, this can't be true. We had just left Atlanta and we have two and a half hours to go, before I can go. This was not like me; I normally had range equal to the range of whatever I was flying, but not this time.

Well, I thought, this is obviously my mind playing games with me and I can defeat it. I will think positive thoughts and take positive and complete control of the bladder that is trying to ruin my demo.

I renewed my conversation with my customers at a desperate pace that must have seemed to them as if a giant vacuum cleaner was sucking up the details of their life. We spoke of their business and of their history, and I shared everything that I could recall about my life that had nothing to do with my bladder. I directed a stream of consciousness like a fire hose at my ever more wary looking customers which was designed more to take my mind off my ever stretching bladder than to make sense. Thirty minutes later I was defeated. I had to go.

I confessed to my customers the nature of my problem and they looked somewhat relieved to find that my erratic behavior had a physical and not mental explanation.

The 414 was equipped with a potty in the very rear of the cabin and what little privacy available was in the form of a simple curtain which could be slid across the end of the cabin.

The thin curtain in place I elected to use the relief tube rather than the potty, which was basically a bucket with a plastic bag in it, hidden under a flip up seat. The relief tube was just that, a funnel with a tube leading to the outside that relied on the higher cabin pressure to move the liquid to the outside when a lever on the funnel was depressed. I had used them many times when flying alone or with other pilots, but never with customers in the airplane and the noise that the tube made had never registered with me.

Relieving oneself in the air is no different than the earthbound process in that once started it is difficult to impossible to stop, and this time was no exception. But to my horror once I started the relief tube sounded like a foursome of teen agers getting the last of their milkshake from the bottom of their cups. It sucked like outer space and not the atmosphere was on the outside of the airplane and the noise of the liquid being spewed out of the aircraft seemed to me to blank out even the sound of the engines. I briefly considered removing the aft bulkhead and spending the remaining flight in the tail cone, but eventually I returned red faced to my equally embarrassed customers to complete the ill fated flight.

Without question though, my most outstanding moment in dealing with airborne potty breaks came during a flight from western Iowa back to West Virginia in a just purchased P35 Bonanza. The airplane was equipped with tip tanks and I knew I could easily make the trip nonstop. I fueled, preflighted and bought a cold coke for intake on this very warm day and in order to extend my own range, I found an empty coke bottle for output.

I was ready to leave when a minor mechanical problem delayed me for two hours or so. Finally airborne and level at nine thousand feet I remembered the Coke and took a several swallows of the now warm beverage. About an hour later I needed a bathroom break and I carefully and successfully used the empty Coke bottle while the autopilot flew the airplane.

It was a beautiful summer day with almost unlimited visibility and with just a few puffy cumulus clouds a few thousand feet below me. The airplane was running perfectly, the autopilot was doing a stellar job of flying it in the smooth air, and I was left to my idle thoughts. Ever watchful for traffic and with eyes on the horizon, I reached for my Coke, unscrewed the cap and took long and thoughtful drink.

I've read that urine is sterile and that in an emergency one can stay alive by drinking it and I've even watched it being done on survival shows. All of this flashed through my mind as I tried not to spit what was left in my mouth on the instrument panel. I was able to get the remainder back in the bottle and after finding the real Coke I used it to flush my mouth. For five minutes just sat and concentrated on not throwing up.

I like to think that I continue to learn as a pilot and it gives me a good feeling to return from a flight knowing something that I didn't know before. This certainly counts as one of those flights, and to this day I never drink anything out of a bottle without looking at it first.


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