Can pilots go to the bathroom?
How do fighter pilots pee while flying?
As a fighter pilot, one of the most common questions I get is: How do you go to the bathroom in an F-16 or F-35? Let me start off by describing the cockpit.
A cockpit in a modern fighter is an engineering masterpiece. An incredible amount of effort goes into allowing us to interface with the aircraft. In fact, as pilots, we don’t say we’re climbing into the jet; rather, we call it strapping the jet on our back, because it feels like you and the aircraft become one entity. All the buttons and controls surround your body, allowing you to quickly react to an adversary.
Data is displayed throughout our field-of-view starting in the helmet with true augmented reality, then extending to screens in front of us, and finally to an instrument console between our legs. We have an unprecedented amount of situational awareness, however, the tradeoff is there’s no room for a bathroom.
Now, typically in training, our flights are less than an hour and a half. As long as you don’t drink too much coffee before a flight, it’s generally not a problem. However, in combat, I’ve flown missions as long as 8 hours; crossing the Atlantic, I was airborne for over 10 hours. For these missions, I used what we as pilots affectionately call, piddle-packs.
Piddle-packs are the ultimate long road trip solution. They are specially shaped bags with absorbent beads in them. If we have to relieve ourselves, we’ll unzip the flight suit—which is designed to unzip from the top as well as the bottom—unroll the piddle pack, and then pee into it. Once done, we’ll seal the top, while the absorbent beads turn it into a gel that won’t leak during hard maneuvering.
While the concept is simple, it takes time to become proficient at it. Imagine driving a car while unwrapping a bag and peeing into it while staying in your lane and avoiding traffic. Now take that and amplify it in a 3-dimensional world while flying just under the speed of sound with an enemy that’s potentially trying to shoot you down.
The key is to anticipate times when you’ll have a few minutes of straight and level flight. While in Afghanistan, I would typically use the time it took to travel to the tanker. This allowed me to finish up before I got to the tanker, refuel, and then gather situational awareness while I was returning to the fight.
Because it’s a task-saturating event and difficult to maintain formation or answer radio calls, we’ll use the brevity term “racehorse” to let our wingmen know we’re busy for the next few minutes. This allows them to pick up the slack and minimize extraneous talking until we’re done.
Since I’ve been in the Air Force, a number of devices have been developed to make the process easier—particularly for women. I’ve never flown with any of them, but they usually involve an undergarment with a jockstrap that is attached to a vacuum. When the pilot needs to pee, they turn on the vacuum and relieve themselves without having to unzip. While the process is simpler, for me, the upfront preparation, along with the added weight and complexity of a vacuum, have made the cost greater than the benefit.
As for your follow-up question, how do you go number 2? The answer is, you don’t.
Make sure to check out Justin “Hasard” Lee’s podcast, The Professionals Playbook!
How Do US Air Force Pilots “Go To the Bathroom” In Flight?
The US Air Force is getting new technology that will make it easier for its fighter pilots, especially female pilots, to urinate in flight, potentially alleviating a longstanding problem for pilots needing to answer nature’s call in a cramped cockpit.
The Air Force will be receiving the Omni Gen. 3 Skydrate in-flight bladder-relief device in the near future, Air Combat Command announced in a press statement Wednesday.
The new system has a larger bag, varied hose lengths, and improved flow rate, among other features. And pilots can turn it on and off using just one hand.
Last year, the Air Force began seeking out industry sources for its Sky High Relief Challenge, noting in its request that the service “needs an improved bladder relief system that allows female aviators to hydrate adequately and relieve themselves during flight without interfering with operations or compromising flight safety.”
Global demands and aerial refueling have increased the flight times for mission sorties over the years. In the vast Pacific theater, for instance, routine flights can easily be in excess of ten hours.
Existing bladder-relief technology was not cutting it for pilots making those flights though. “The Air Force recognized that current devices were not optimized for long-duration sorties, and as a result, aircrew were routinely dehydrating themselves to delay the need for bladder relief,” ACC explained.
This was a big problem for pilots, particularly female pilots, who the Air Force said previously would “resort to ‘tactical dehydration’ to avoid the difficulties and potential dangers of having to relieve themselves inflight.”
Dehydration can trigger a number of serious physical and mental health issues ranging from decreasing G-tolerance by up to 50% and increased risk of G-induced loss of consciousness to cognitive and visual impairment.
There is also a greater risk of developing things like kidney stones, urinary tract infections, and other health problems.
Beyond potentially harming pilots, problems with bladder-relief systems have also led to aircraft losses, as was the case in 1992, when a veteran F-16 pilot crashed his fighter jet into a hillside in Turkey while trying to relieve himself.
ACC said that 30 female airmen tested the Skydrate system, which male pilots can also use, in hours-long wear tests at the Omni facility with nine pilots carrying out flight testing at three different bases.
Sharon Rogers, the lead test engineer for the 46th Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, explained that “this is a good example of using a ‘fly, fix, fly’ model to prioritize female aircrew feedback and speed up the testing process to field the device quicker.” The Skydrate system was developed and put through testing in a year.
Maj. Nikki Yogi, an F-35A pilot who participated in the testing and had a poor experience with the previous system as an A-10 pilot, said that pilots “should be focused on taking the fight to the enemy, not on whether their bladder relief device is going to work or be comfortable to use.”
The first shipments of the new Skydrate system will arrive early this month, and aircrews will have access to them by spring of next year.
The service is also looking into alternative designs, so that it can offer pilots a selection and they can choose the system that works best for them.
Ryan Pickrell is a senior military and defense reporter at Business Insider, where he covers defense-related issues from Washington, DC.
An aircraft lavatory or plane toilet is a small room on an aircraft with a toilet and sink. They are commonplace on passenger flights except some short-haul flights. Aircraft toilets were historically chemical toilets, but many now use a vacuum flush system instead.
History [ edit ]
A crewman on board a World War 2 Royal Air Force Vickers Wellington bomber. The container to the right of him is the aircraft’s «Elsan» chemical toilet (1939-1941)
Early aircraft fitted with a toilet include the 1919 Handley Page Type W, the 1921 DH.29 Doncaster and the 1921 Caproni Ca.60.  However, the Caproni crashed on its second flight and never saw service. The Handley Page H.P.42 airliner, designed in 1928, was fitted with toilets near the center of the aircraft.  The British Supermarine Stranraer flying boat, which first flew in 1934, was fitted with a toilet that was open to the air. When the lid was lifted in flight, airflow produced a whistling noise that led to the aircraft being nicknamed the «Whistling Shithouse».  The Short Sunderland flying boat, which saw military service from 1938 to 1967, was comparatively well equipped, carrying a porcelain flush toilet.
During World War II, large bomber aircraft, such as the American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the British Avro Lancaster, carried chemical toilets (basically a bucket with seat and cover, see bucket toilet); in British use, they were called «Elsans» after the company that manufactured them. These often overflowed and were difficult to use. The intense cold of high altitude required crews to wear many layers of heavy clothing, and the pilot might have to take violent evasive action with little warning. They were unpopular with bomber crews, who would avoid using them if at all possible.  Bomber crew members sometimes preferred to urinate into bottles or defecate into cardboard boxes, which were then thrown from the aircraft. 
Small aircraft [ edit ]
During World War II, smaller aircraft such as fighters were fitted with devices known as «relief tubes». These consisted of a funnel attached to a hose that led to the outside and which could be used for urination. These devices were awkward to use and could become frozen and blocked in the intense cold of high altitude. 
Such devices are still sometimes fitted to modern military aircraft and small, private aircraft although they are difficult for women to use. Male glider pilots undertaking extended soaring flights may wear an external catheter that either drains into a collection bag or is connected to tubing that dumps the urine to the outside. If the latter approach is used, care must be taken when designing the system so that the stream of urine does not make contact with other parts of the aircraft, where it may eventually cause corrosion. 
Another solution to urinating on long military patrols, especially in modern naval patrol craft where a pilot is strapped to his seat, is the use of a sponge-containing zipper storage bag, which is disposed at the end of the flight.
Passenger aircraft [ edit ]
A toilet unit for one of the Airbus A320 family of passenger aircraft, prior to installation (2005)
Lavatories per passenger provided aboard aircraft vary considerably from airline to airline and aircraft to aircraft. On board North American aircraft, including low-cost, charter, and scheduled service airline carriers, the normally accepted minimum ratio of lavatories to passengers is approximately one lavatory for every 50 passengers. However, in premium cabin and business cabins, passengers may have access to multiple lavatories reserved primarily for their use. These ratios of lavatories to passengers vary considerably, depending upon which airline is being used with some first class passengers having one lavatory for every 12 passengers. Additionally, many of the larger long-haul airlines elect to equip their aircraft with larger lavatories for this particular group of passengers willing to pay higher fares.
Smaller commuter aircraft and regional aircraft designed for short-haul flights may not be equipped with lavatories. Recently, many regional airlines in North America have commenced the trend of eliminating the refilling of hand-washing basin potable water tanks in order to reduce weight, fuel consumption, and service costs. [ citation needed ] To facilitate sanitation, disinfectant hand-wipes are provided.
Types [ edit ]
Lavatories on modern aircraft are very expensive, and include features that have required substantial upfront and long term investments by the world’s airlines to design and develop. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers continually research ways to improve lavatory design technology to increase functionality and reduce costs of production, while maintaining adequate levels of safety, hygiene, and comfort.
For this reason, many modern lavatories are now no longer of the «chemical toilet blue water recirculated electric flush» variety. Instead, lavatory manufacturers have progressed to «vacuum flush» technology to eliminate solid and liquid residue from the basin, patented in 1975. 
Some of the advantages of vacuum flush technology systems, from aircraft designers’ perspective, is the increased safety attributes through less risk of corrosive waste spill over into recesses around the lavatories which can be difficult to protect. Additionally, vacuum flush systems are considered to be less odor-inducing and substantially lighter in weight, saving fuel by reducing the need to carry large reserves of blue recirculating water.
Fixtures [ edit ]
Porcelain lavatory sink in a private jet
- Ashtray (even on airlines that have banned smoking, as a safe place for disposing cigarette butts in case a passenger lights a cigarette  )
- Built in waterless toilet (vacuum flush) with push button flush
- Call button – to signal for assistance
- Electrical outlet for shavers
- Garbage can – small push door to discourage use of toilet to dispose of non-human waste items
- Handle bars to assist elderly or disabled passengers to maintain balance and to get up from toilet
- Handwash faucet and sink (with taps or push button to dispense water)
- Paper towels
- Soap dispenser
- Toilet paper dispenser or linens
- Paper cup dispenser
- Indicator on door that illuminates to indicate lavatory occupied or vacant
- Toiletries – handcream, lotion, facial tissue, sanitary napkins, air sickness bags, etc (Amenities vary by airline and routes)
- Changing table for infants located above the toilet
Fitted cabinets may contain additional toilet paper and other toiletries, but they are often locked or have discreet release mechanisms. A common release mechanism is under the mirror/sink area. A little button is presented if, when pressed, will open the mirror up to show products, such as toilet paper, lavatory soap, feminine hygiene products, and more. The toilet and sink are often moulded plastic or a stainless steel sink; the floor is usually a non-slip surface. In newer aircraft, the executive or first class lavatories are roomier and offer more toiletries and other comforts.
The presence of an ashtray is sometimes commented upon, given that smoking has been long banned on flights in many parts of the world. However it is a requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration that ashtrays continue to be fitted to the doors of aircraft toilets, due to the fire risk caused by the possible disposal of illicitly consumed smoking materials in the toilet’s wastebin.  In 2011, a Jazz flight from Fredericton, Canada, to Toronto was prevented from taking off because an ashtray was missing – the aircraft instead flew to Halifax without passengers to have a new ashtray fitted. 
Waste bins are fitted with Halon fire-extinguishing bottles and «oxygen-smothering flapper lids», and the toilets equipped with smoke detectors. Over time these protective devices have been incorporated into aircraft lavatory designs due to fires that have started when the careless smoker of the past or the clandestine smoker of the present has incorrectly disposed of smouldering smoking material. Also, the danger from accidental fires in the toilet is considered to be higher than in other parts of the aircraft cabin as the fire would have more time to develop before being noticed by a passenger or crew-member. Several crashes and/or emergency landings have been linked to fires in or near lavatories, such as Varig Flight 820 and Air Canada Flight 797 in 1973 and 1983, respectively.
If the toilet’s fire extinguishing or smoke detection systems are inoperative, the aircraft is still permitted to fly, provided the toilet is barred to passengers and only used by crew members. 
Servicing [ edit ]
The toilets of a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 being serviced
Each aircraft equipped with a bathroom or lavatory needs to discharge its waste somehow. After an inbound aircraft arrives it is the duty of the «lav agent» to flush the lavatory system. In places where fewer or smaller aircraft are being serviced, a «lav cart» (essentially a small lav truck pulled behind a tug) is used to service the lavatories. At airports with higher volumes of passenger traffic, lavatory agents usually use trucks adapted with large tanks on board that do not need to be emptied as often, often colloquially called honey wagons. These trucks are equipped for access to the waste ports of the aircraft, which can be out of reach by other means.