Little John
7 min read
Curtiss NC-4 airplane

The Curtiss NC-4: long legs, but where’s the lav?

People complain about my lack of… endurance. Oh sure, some of them know that I regularly force my bloated frame to cover nearly 4 miles in running shoes every other day, which must count for something, yet they don’t know that halfway through, deep inside a patch of wild foliage and carefully positioned from view, I stop to twist a kidney. Every time.

Turns out, I’m not the only pilot with a bladder of clay. For as long as airplanes have been able to sustain vast distances, they’ve been flown by people who can’t. Take, for example, the crew of the Curtiss NC-4, which became the first airplane to cross the Atlantic. Knowing full well that the huge flying boat did not come with a head, the crew brought along a few weather balloons as substitutes. There also being no radio beacons at the time, the NC-4’s route was laid out by a line of destroyers anchored from the mainland to the Azores. The airplane’s crew had already taken turns and filled one weather balloon, when the first destroyer radioed a request for a souvenir of that historic occasion. The crew set up for a bomb run and plopped the balloon squarely on the deck, showering the ship and eliminating further such requests for the rest of the flight.

In truth, we’re all pretty much bombarded constantly by our bladders—five to nine times a day, according to Dr. Harvey Wichman of the Aerospace Psychology Laboratory in California. According to Wichman—also a CFI—the average bladder holds just one-third of a quart. When it grows only one-fifth full, we start to feel the urge. The urge to purge. And when it approaches two-thirds max capacity, a dastardly process begins called the Micturition Reflex. “It’s the feeling that you suddenly have to go that builds and builds,” the doc said. “Then it relaxes and the intensity passes, then the reflex comes again, and it keeps coming in waves. Each time your brain comes in and overrides the Micturition Reflex. It can over-ride it until you experience five times the pressure of that first reflex, then…there’s nothing you can do about it.”

If that weren’t enough, the good doctor added that all these pressures and waves and reflexes triggers the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that performance is an optimum function of arousal. Translated into pilot English, Wichman said, “A highly stretched bladder produces arousal, and in a pilot such activities as landing and taking off also produce arousal.” Pilot summation: In an airplane, the urge to purge is the road to ruin.

Okay, so here comes the advice: Lay off the caffeine, which is a diuretic, forcing you to eliminate more fluid than you take on. And then there’s gum. While you’re chomping at a wad you’re swallowing saliva, which is just so much extra fluid to your kidneys. So toss the Beeman’s, Chuck. In fact, excitement alone can start your kidneys working overtime, and in no time you’ve worked your urinary tract into a downward spiral. To break the biological tailspin, “Take a deep breath, relax, and tell yourself to stay calm,” Dr. Wichman said.

Little John

The famous red bottle–not graceful, but priceless when needed.

But if you’ve ever scrolled or thumbed through Sporty’s Pilot Shop catalog, you know there are other, pragmatic solutions. And so I used my influence as a journalist to get free samples of a few of their products: The Little John, a plastic, gourd-shape, screw-capped receptacle, colored red for quick recognition and retrieval—or at least that’s my theory; the Lady J Adapter, a sky-blue attachment that resembles an oxygen mask and that converts the Little John from a male to female use (“Actually lets woman get relief while standing!” it says on the side); and three shiny Convenience Bags, each with a block of absorptive material inside. “For motion sickness and urine disposal…no ties, no strings, no mess,” it says. Though my stringent journalistic ethics prevents me from accepting these items as gifts, the Sporty’s folks insisted I keep everything just this once.

Now I had more receptacles than the weakest bladder brimming with a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke could handle alone, so I asked a pal and pilot, whom we’ll call “Bob” (that’s his name after all) to fly along. After slamming down Styrofoam cup after Styrofoam cup of the FBO’s free coffee-color mud, and slurping at the water fountain on the way out the door, we squeezed inside the smallest airplane that could hold us both, a Cessna 152, and crammed our gear in whatever free spaces were left after we buckled in. We took off and pointed the nose to the eastern end of Long Island Sound, once the flight-test area for Sikorsky and Republic, and now us. I assigned myself to the Convenience Bags, and handed the John and Lady J to Bob. “How am I supposed to use this?” he asked, covering his mouth with the Lady J’s business end.

“You’re not,” I replied, staring down at the Sound for inspiration. “So, do you feel anything yet?”

“I think so. Don’t look.” While I uncomfortably scanned the instruments and checked for traffic on my left and otherwise stared straight ahead and tried to not pay attention, Bob seemed to realize that he couldn’t just sit there to perform the experiment. Unbuckling  his seatbelt he attempted to stand, but he ended up with the back of his neck flush against the cockpit ceiling. He looked like a chubby question mark, maybe something you’d see in a children’s alphabet book. While he maneuvered into position, the nose swayed laterally.

“Uh, could you try to keep your feet away from the rudder pedals?”

“Sorry. This is very, very difficult.” His voice was strained.

“Maybe I should have done a couple of clearing turns.”

“All done,” he pronounced, screwing the cap back on the Little John and swishing the contents around rather proudly.

“That’s not much.”

“It’s harder than it looks.”

I swung the Cessna back west and took a deep breath and handed the controls over to Bob. Leaving my left arm hooked inside the shoulder harness in a delusional nod toward  safety, I unbuckled the seatbelt and forced myself off the seat and into the Official Bob Question Mark Pose. It was cold and I had on a couple of layers of thermal underwear beneath my jeans, and as I attacked those Bob began whistling “Off we go into the wild blue yonder…” With my goal in hand, I held the Convenience Bag’s ample opening in position and…nothing. My bladder had become embarrassed.

“Think about Niagara Falls,” Bob suggested. So I forced visions of waterfalls and the mighty rivers into my brain’s eye view, and of thunderstorms and tropical deluges and of faucets spewing forth gallon after gallon. But no. I had morphed into Charles the Iron Bladder, Duke of Lindbergh, the man who bravely flew from New York to Paris in 33 hours with nary a pit stop.

Following a mere trickle, I grew frustrated and returned to my seat. The Bag’s absorbent material sponged up its sparse libation and surreptitiously I leaned it carefully against Bob’s seat, personal insurance against any turbulence. (Only later did I learn that the Bag’s opening acted as a check valve.) Bob flew us back to the airport, and during the inflight debrief we concluded that the fault lay not in the equipment we were testing—and certainly not in the equipment we were testing it with—but rather in the equipment we were testing it in. The 152 was so cramped that we had to take turns breathing, but given the relative spaciousness of your average 172, Archer, Bonanza, Mirage, etc., we were positive that our experiment would have resulted in a more dynamic flow rate. Also, there’s no way a real man can urinate scrunched up like a question mark. To do our business we would have to stretch out.

After we tied down Bob said, “You want this?” offering me the Little John, with its toxic contents trapped inside.

“It’s yours—and you can present the Lady J Adaptor to your wife with my compliments,” I said. “In fact, take my Convenience Bag, too. It’s slightly used, but…”

“I’ll pass,” he punned, albeit unintentionally.

12 replies
  1. Lawrence Zingesser
    Lawrence Zingesser says:

    I bought one of those gadgets decades ago. On one long trip back then I was able to go 10 hours without using it.
    However with the onset of BPH (benign prostatic hypertrophy) I find that I need to use it more frequently.
    Problem is that it sometimes gets under the seat of my Mooney and is difficult to retrieve.
    Perhaps Sporty’s could offer a bracket to hold the device…like a fire extinguisher bracket. Come to think of it one might not need a fire extinguisher in the event of fire (just kidding of course).

    • Kayak Jack
      Kayak Jack says:

      Velcro it to the floor in some convenient location. Practice using it while just sitting in a chair – behind closed doors, of course.

      Not an easy thing to do, even in a chair. In a plane, while solo … I can just see the accident report, an investigator trying to piece together the puzzle. ;=)

  2. Bill Polits
    Bill Polits says:

    As a kid, I was happy to use the so-called “relief tube” in my dad’s Aero Commander 680E. Some years later, when he stepped up to the pressurized version, such a device was sadly lacking. But being older, I could handle it.

    Practicing such maneuvers when you’re young helps, as devices similar to the one above is a piece of cake as long as you control the angle of the dangle.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    When we were on long trips in dads tripacer it was always the “mayonnaise jar” that appeared out of nowhere. Clean of course! :)

  4. fred
    fred says:

    We did a flying safari in Australia. The Simpson desert was very dry and it took 3 hours to cross. I drank several quarts in those three hours. The travel john was easy to use worked well and the gel trapped the liquid so it could not spill. I highly recommend these.

  5. Brent Dalrymple
    Brent Dalrymple says:

    My wife and I frequently fly X-country in a Cessna 172SP and our two-hour bladders aren’t always compatible with the three- to four-hour legs sometimes required. We tried all of those potty gizmos and found them severely wanting, mostly because, as others have already observed, nearly impossible body contortions are required for success. Then we hit upon the idea of disposable adult diapers. We reasoned that if John Glen could preserve his dignity while wearing a diaper in a space capsule, then our dignity would not be threatened by wearing a diaper in a Cessna 172. Besides, who knows but us? Interestingly enough, the diapers relax the mind sufficiently that we have never actually had to use them.

  6. Buck
    Buck says:

    With all due respect to the other posts that intended to be helpful all I can say is I have been there more than once. I could bore with a store of an emergency pit stop with the intent to visit nature by the side of the runway at a sleepy airport that suddenly turned into LAX but I think you get the gist. The story had me LMAO, thanks. I’d like to add that a 32 oz Gatorade bottle is a wonderful friend…

  7. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Wonderful article! I am still laughing (but not too hard, as I need to… well, you know).

    I recall unplanned stops at an isolated BLM dirt strip in Utah, and small airports in multiple states. Glad to know I’m not the only one with TB (tiny bladder).

    Perhaps we should modify the list of Things Pilots Cannot Use (runway behind you, altitude above you, etc.) to include “toilets at the FBO you overflew about 15 minutes ago!”

  8. Barry Gloger, MD
    Barry Gloger, MD says:

    You don’t need to stand to urinate; after all you are able to do so when sitting down to defecate. However you do need to work yourself to the front edge of the seat to give your parts room to dangle. Otherwise the adult diaper is a viable alternative.

    Military pilots use a Texas Catheter. It looks like a condom with a hose attached to the closed end, that drains into a storage bag. The open end has a sticky substance to promote adherence to the penile skin and the seal is reinforced with a Velcro wrap. You can buy them from a surgical supply store. The female equivalent devices don’t work as well and require a clean shave.

    That’s why a very important part of my preflight for all passengers is a last minute mandatory visit to the head. You can also place Chux or Pee Pads (used for training puppies) as seat covers under all children (keeps all spills off the upholstery).

  9. Terry Daily
    Terry Daily says:

    Years ago, before departing on my student cross country, I polished off a large 10 oz coke (large for the early 60’s), departed March AFB, Riverside, CA enroute to a small airport at the southern tip of the Salton Sea. Three quarters of the way into the flight my bladder had reached it’s max. I was a B-52 navigator at the time and had the large E-6B plastic computer case which I squeezed open and filled to the brim. Now what ?!?! Slowed to slow flight speed, opened the side window and tossed the contents, of which, every drop blew back into my face. The hot desert air dried me out before landing, but I maneuvered to keep my smelly body upwind while the FBO signed my log book. Now, I never leave home without my “Little John” . It has served me well through our little Glassaire tail dragger, Cessna 195 and most recently, returning from Denver in our Cessna 170. I give it a 5 Star rating.

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