Airplane designers have gone to extreme lengths over the last 100 years to make airplanes fly faster, farther, and more efficiently.
We’re now blessed with general aviation airframes capable of flying four or five hours or more at a stretch – far beyond the bladder capacity of most pilots and passengers. Do the designers mean for us to squirm and grit our teeth? Dehydrate ourselves? Should we stop every couple of hours for bathroom breaks and forgo the smooth air, cool temperatures and operating efficiency that come with high altitude?
Of course not.
Pilots are supposed to stay hydrated and comfortable on long flights – even in airplanes without lavatories. But it takes a little planning. And a few bottled sports drinks, an autopilot, and ride reports that warn of turbulence ahead sure can help.
Still, many general aviation pilots absolutely refuse to pee in airplanes, and they plan cross-country trips with the endurance of their bladders – not aircraft performance – in mind. After completing a recent four-leg, 16-hour, cross-country trip, several experienced pilots wrote to say that such a journey would have been impossible for them due to required potty stops. When I landed and shut down after a particularly long flight, the person who met the airplane (and had been watching its progress on FlightAware.com) volunteered to tie the airplane down anticipating that the pilot had to sprint to a bathroom immediately.
Cross-country flights are complicated enough without putting potty breaks in the equation.
Here are a few tips that (although kind of gross) can make long-distance flights a lot more bearable. But first, a couple of qualifiers: I’m a guy, and I approach the subject from a male perspective. Also, this article doesn’t address questions of etiquette for multi-crew airplanes or what’s appropriate when flying with your mother in law.
World War II-era military airplanes, even trainers with limited range and endurance, almost all came with “relief tubes” as standard equipment. The arrangements were brilliantly simple: a funnel clipped to the bottom of each seat was attached to a rubber hose that drained out the bottom of the fuselage.
The contraptions were hard to miss, easy to use, and relied on gravity alone. They weren’t perfect. Hoses got kinked, blocked, separated, or frozen. But they worked well for many years, and it’s a mystery to me why long-range GA airplanes never incorporated them.
The high-tech solution
A variety of firms make “piddle packs” that contain a sponge or powder meant to absorb urine. Military pilots use them on long trips.
But they’re more expensive, harder to find, and problematic than other means of solving the same problem. Also, the powder inside can spill or lose its absorbency.
I was on a long flight with a fellow AOPA staffer once who was planning to write a review on one such product. He put it to the test over Lake Michigan (funny how the large bodies of water affect us). To say it didn’t work as advertised would be an understatement.
I hope no one who ever flies that airplane knows its history. (Your secret is safe with me, Nate Ferguson!)
I don’t have any preference when it comes to flavor or electrolytes. But sports drinks are perfect for the cockpit due to the shape of the bottles. They have large openings, so their advantages for guys with poor aim are obvious.
Bottled water is easy to find at most FBOs these days – but their small openings can be problematic, especially in turbulence.
The downside to these kinds of plastic bottles is that they’re clear. Once you’ve filled one, you’ve got to find a way to discreetly dispose of it (and dropping bottles from airplanes in flight is extremely tacky). I usually slip the full bottles into a canvas bag and empty them in an FBO bathroom, but I’m ever fearful a cap will come undone.
Also, beware changes in atmospheric pressure. A bottle filled and capped at high altitude will tend to crumple in a descent. That’s usually not a big deal – but watch out for the reverse situation. If you fill, or partially fill the bottle, then climb, the air inside will expand and build pressure inside the bottle. If you’ve ever a bag of potato chips explode at 10,000 or 12,000 feet, you know what I’m talking about.
Empty one-quart oil bottles have the advantage of being opaque, and such bottles also have a clear seam meant to show fluid levels. They would be ideal for in-flight relief — except for the fact that they, like water bottles, have small openings. (Murphy’s Law also creates the real and unpleasant possibility of mistaking a repurposed bottle for actual oil the next time your engine’s a quart low).
Say your intentions
There’s an ongoing debate about the proper times to use autopilots – but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re a godsend when it’s time to go.
Still, no matter how long the radio frequency has been silent, it’s virtually guaranteed that ATC will call with an advisory or reroute at your most exposed and vulnerable moment. That’s why it’s a good idea to let ATC know you’ll be leaving the frequency momentarily (no, they don’t want or need to know why) before getting too far into the process. ATC will ask you to “check back on” in a few minutes, and that’s what you should do. Your voice is likely to sound noticeably lower and more relaxed when you call.
ATC also can be helpful in providing ride reports for the area ahead. Smooth air definitely simplifies matters, especially if getting down to business requires loosening or unlatching seatbelts.
XM Weather on some GPS units and multi-function displays also show areas of turbulence, so plan accordingly.
Flying at relatively high altitudes dehydrates you faster and increases fatigue levels, so it’s important to keep drinking on long trips. But it’s better to have one or two half-full sports drinks than one full bottle for a simple reason. When the time comes, you don’t want to have to guzzle an entire sports drink just to free up the bottle. This isn’t a zero-sum game. If you drink 12 ounces, make sure you have an empty 16- or 24-ounce bottle nearby.
This is one of those times not to press your luck – and a half-full bottle is better than a full one.