Your Analysis Of Priorities Matters


My friend, Paul Bertorelli, recently produced the best line in aviation literature, even better than Lindbergh’s description of the North Atlantic on his historic 1927 solo flight: “Holy cow, that’s a lot of water! What was I thinking?!” Tough to top, but Paul encapsulated the thoughts of every pilot of a certain age when he explained that exiting a taildragger with inner heroic visions is more often “… a shambolic crab-wise limp to the café bathroom which is, inevitably, out of order.” I tip my EAA cap.

Why? Because it exposes priorities rarely discussed in polite company or at the airport. Some years ago, my friend Rick and I flew his Cessna 182RG (a great, overlooked airplane) to Mason City, Iowa, to fly with aviation icon, and renowned guitarist, Doug Rozendaal. You’ve heard the name, even if you’re uncertain how to pronounce those vowels bunched up with no respect for social distancing. Doug is the guy you see in major warbird events, the one who’s flown Cubs to Corsairs and still isn’t afraid to whip out that guitar at the Antique Airplane Association’s Blakesburg fly-in and accompany himself—and others—on a freeform rendition of  George Jones’ “White Lightning.” You have to have been there.

Despite or because of Doug’s vast aeronautical experience, after we landed, taxied, and exchanged hellos, Doug anticipated our needs, “Restroom’s inside the hangar.” Such prescience displays a solid grasp of priorities. Praise all you will the pilots who can handle tricky crosswinds in a Mustang or the FBO advertising the quickest turnarounds, but none of that matters when you find the restroom inaccessible.

Most airports promote their services, such as maintenance, fuel, or proximity to casinos. Gas prices are posted on websites, and Yelpish reviews tout the friendly personnel and availability of courtesy cars and cookies. All good, but when I’m on a three-mile final with knees locked together, because I took advantage of the free refills in the Ground Loop Café at the last stop, I don’t care what the aerodrome offers other than a place to … well, you know…micturate. Or as the FAA referred to the process when instituting drug testing in the 1980s: Voiding. I was a controller back then and gotta tell ya, gave new meaning to “void time,” an IFR term used when ATC issues a clearance but wants you to hustle getting off the ground, so the controller adds, “Clearance void if not off by (time) …” And by “hustle” it’s understood, “Hope you voided before calling for your clearance.”

Let’s be serious for a moment. (Contemplate serious moment here.) Now that that’s over, consider the relationship between aviation aspiration and the human bladder’s limitations. Everything in flight revolves around how long we can hold it. Strategic planning is key. I once stopped at small airport in eastern Iowa, where a friendly FBO guy offered me a bottle of Pepsi. Big bottle. Although I don’t like sugary drinks, I accepted to be polite and sat for an hour listening to this old dude tell flying stories. I love flying stories and often glean the best for my novels. (I have a broad interpretation of “public domain.”) Anyhow, drink finished, I headed home in my Aeronca Champ, westbound into a 20-knot headwind. Not the stuff of Jake Hollow drama, until 20 miles from home with a 40-knot groundspeed (do the math), my bladder said, “We gotta stop.” The FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge—soon to be a Netflix series with Harrison Ford—states, “The distance remaining to your destination increases with the square of your liquid intake.” Meaning, I wasn’t going to make it home.

The nearest alternate with flushable amenities was 25 miles north, another was 20 south. One mile ahead, though, was a soybean field where a combine had just harvested the last row and was leaving the field. Basic geometry dictated landing there. Side note: When choosing between landing in a harvested bean or corn field, pick beans. The opposite applies when the crops are still in the ground. Once harvested, the bean ground is wonderfully smooth, and with the 20-knot westerly breeze this one was perfectly aligned for me to land, come to a stop … and then what?

The field was a full section (one square mile, 640 acres), and I chose to land halfway down to ensure a little privacy. Except, I noticed the combine reverse course, the farmer likely curious about the yellow airplane landing on his property. Not eager to make a new friend, I rolled to a stop and exposed (wait for it) the flaw in my plan. With no electric starter and no way to tie the tail down I had to keep the engine running, climb out and, with my left hand holding onto the doorframe, relieve the reason I’d landed. Picture it: The airplane was pointed into the wind with the propeller adding to the waist-level turbulence, making target acquisition imprecise. All this while I glanced over my shoulder, keeping track of the combine racing toward me.

Luckily, combines aren’t real fast, so after mitigating the cause for the unscheduled stop, I climbed back in to the cockpit, strapped the lap belt and waved to the farmer as I opened the throttle and lifted into the wind. Triumphant, but curious, I circled once to watch the farmer exit the combine, look up at the airplane and down at the unexplained wet spot in his otherwise dry field.

Here’s the point, tortured though it is. When posting an airport review, include a lavatory facility ranking: “Plastic outhouse open 24 hours, a bit smelly, so I only give it 2 (out 4) stalls ….” Or as Lindbergh said to the crowd as he pulled into transient parking after 33 hours holding it in, “Ou est la salle de bain?!” 

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  1. An emergency pull forward on an aircraft carrier is a big deal. It happens when a launch cycle is stopped and all the aircraft fouling the landing area are pulled forward in order to land an aircraft in distress. I’ve seen it happen after a pilot declared a “personal emergency.” After the landing, the pilot, in a “shambolic crab-wise limp,” rapidly disappeared below deck.

    I swear it wasn’t me.

  2. I learned early in my Military flying career to go when you could so you might not have to when you could not. Before there were women on the flight line I always peed on the left main tire for good luck just before jumping in for engine start.

  3. “Your Analysis Of Priorities Matters. It’s not the quality of the facilities that matter, but rather the proximity to the ramp when they’re desperately needed.”

    REALLY??? Guess, what? Us women have been pilots for more that 100 years now and have a considerably different take on this matter. Perhaps next time you write an editorial it might be good to keep that in mind since you had better believe that that’s how we grade an FBO. Not all of your readers have prostates.

  4. One of the first flying lessons I got was “Never walk past rest room without using it if you’re going out to the plane.” Another thing I learned, there is a Pavlovian bladder response to the sound of the wheels locking in the “up” position.

    • I’ve always felt that it was the vibration of the seat from the engine running that massages the bladder and causes it to relax. Funny how, the more relaxed the bladder becomes, the more tense the rest of the body is.

  5. Of course, the salle de bain is the room with the bathtub (and traditionally with no toilet). What Lindberg ought to have said was, “Où est le W.C.?” (“doo bleh vay say”). I’ve found that even in countries that don’t use the letter W (e.g. Croatia), they still post “WC” signs.

  6. Visiting in Denmark a while ago, I wrangled a day at a nearby soaring club, in a high performance tandem. Great group of pilots. Different experience than the US. My first winch launch for one, powered by – of all things – a humongous American V8. Great day, good cloud streets. Long day… Had to pee and we were still an hour+ away from home base. Fortunately I had along a wide mouth 1L water bottle which I’d gradually emptied during the day. A bit awkward but it worked. Only slightly embarrassing.

  7. ”Airport piss after dribble” cam happen because the bladder may not empty completely. McDonald’s napkins help, just saying, or maybe you’ve heard that one before. #2, in my experience, is a totally different thing.

  8. During a different lifetime I picked up a Cessna 185 load of passengers at Ndjili International and after two hours enroute during the flight inland had deviate due to weather into an abandoned airstrip far from anywhere. So far from anywhere in fact that after landing I felt completely free to say “folks out here the entire world is a restroom. Ladies on the right, gents on the left”. Necessity was the mother of eager compliance that day.

  9. Reminds me of a story Max Conrad–famous long-distance flyer–told on himself. Max had a number of world record distance flights–Casablanca to Los Angeles non-stop for example–or closed-course records for solo flight over 50 hours in a Comanche. The question most asked of him–“How do you go to the bathroom?”

    Max mentioned one of his early trans-Pacific flights. I like milk. The airport diner had a dozen small cartons that they gave me. I was halfway to Hawaii before I opened the first one–it sure tasted good–I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until I took the first drink. I thought that I’d just sweat it out–and a bit later, I drank the third, then the fourth one. By the time I was ready for the next one, the inevitable happened–I had to go. I couldn’t find my “emergency jug”, but thought “I”ll just go in the empty cartons. Hand-flying a Comanche without autopilot in the tropics PLUS the mechanics of filling the tiny carton takes ALL of your concentration! The biggest problem–How could I have more “Output” for filling the cartons than I had “Input”–all the empty cartons were full! I desperately drank another carton–it was starting to sour, but I drank it anyway, (all the while balancing the carton I was drinking, the carton I was “filling”–as well as flying the airplane)–and temporarily solved the problem–but the problem came back in half an hour.”

    “I reluctantly drank the next carton–(which was getting more sour by the hour!) to make room for yet another. In addition to my normal time/speed/distance calculations, I added “range” as well–HOW MANY MORE HOURS, AND HOW MUCH MORE SOUR MILK WOULD I HAVE TO CONSUME BEFORE MAKING HAWAII? It was with tears in my eyes and holding my nose when I choked down the last carton of milk–only half an hour out of Hawaii–then RAN to the bathroom on arrival! People ask me “wouldn’t you insist on an extra engine for long overwater flights? I reply “NO BUT I DO INSIST ON REDUNDANCY IN RELIEF BOTTLES!”

  10. Glider pilot “facilities” were mentioned. At our airport at Albert Lea, MN (just north of where Rozendaal holds court) we host a National Glider Contest each year. We get competitors from all over the world. On the years where we have the “big ships”–those that have ultra-long range (and wings to match!), they often carry water ballast. We get a lot of spectators coming to the airport (we’re adjacent to town) to watch them finish. When the glider had the field made, they would do a “high-speed finish”–dumping water as they flashed overhead. It often made a rainbow-like sheen as viewed against the setting sun.

    As the gliders were being put away one evening, a family came out and said “we saw this fall off a glider when it was landing.” It was a piece of rubber attached to a tube. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their “find” was a pilot’s relief tube–glider pilots spend HOURS under a baking aircraft canopy, so must stay hydrated–and what comes in must come out. They solve the problem with a condom-like relief tube, and rather than remove it on the ground, the pilot simply removed it and dropped it. I told them that it was “part of the launch system”–they asked if they could keep it as a souvenir. Rather than have it proudly displayed on a wall, I told them “I’ll return it to the pilot!”

  11. Little John is your friend. My friend, at least, with a place of honor in my flight bag right next to Capt. Jepp’s big brown book. On one long flight he acquired a buddy: after consuming the contents of my water bottle, a second bladder emergency occurred, and there was no choice but to convert said water bottle into a backup collection container. When even that proved inadequate, I found that with very careful handling, those containers could be emptied out the small vent window that Mooney puts on the pilot’s side. Very careful handling.

  12. Back in the old days, I used to fly a very fancy, corporate-equipped, leather-lined Shrike Commander with just four club chairs in the cabin and a full wet bar between them. I was making a personal trip with my girlfriend at the time as my passenger. She had to pee. I was at FL180 with a nice tailwind and had no intention of giving it all up so she could use an airport restroom, so I told her to pee in the bar’s ice bucket, which she did.

    Forever after, it amused me to hear my legitimate pax in the back saying, “Another Scotch, Ed, On the rocks?”

  13. My first biological emergency almost five decades ago involved the FAA, fire trucks, an ambulance, the state police, and many hundreds of witnesses.
    It was almost noon on a beautiful fall day with no wind or clouds. Chugging along in my tandem Taylorcraft, a weakening bladder compelled me to land on a deserted gravel road not too far from Dallas Center, Iowa. The landing was easy, but as the problem with my bladder was going to be resolved in just a few seconds, I decided to exit my airplane with the engine running. In a desperate hurry, I attempted to climb from my war-surplus tandem Taylorcraft, which even under the best of circumstances took a bit of flexibility.
    On this hurried day, with my right foot firmly on the ground, I accidentally kicked the side-mounted throttle wide open with my left foot, and the Taylorcraft roared into action. I grabbed the nearest wing strut, but even with the added weight of a completely full bladder, I could not restrain my airplane, and my Taylorcraft took off, perfectly willing to prove to me that she could fly just as well without my help.
    Well, that didn’t workout for either of us, and seconds latter, she was resting on her nose in a shallow, water-filled ditch. It got perfectly quiet after that. I looked about, not a soul could be seen across that flat, treeless prairie horizon, but within the shortest amount of time a parade of vehicles with flashing red lights arrived, accompanied by an army of the curious.
    To make a long story short. I walked a block or two up the road and sat down, trying to hide from the crowd, bladder still full. Eventually a man in a dark suit walked up to me and sat down in the grass, introducing himself as being from the FAA. He asked what happened. I told him. He nodded in apparent understanding, went back to my airplane, took off his jacket, and organized the firemen into a team to rescue my Tayorcraft from the ditch. Afterwards, he gave it a quick inspection, removed a dented wheel pant and put it in the back seat and then explained to me that I had experienced a miracle and that my airplane appeared to have escaped any serious harm. The powers that be then cleared the road, the FAA man swung my propeller, and I flew on to my destination, bladder issue still unresolved but smarter for the experience.