It seemed like an obsession that I always had a plastic bottle of Perrier with me when I flew. I would throw a bottle in my helmet bag and carry it to the jet each time with all my checklists and flying publications, energy bars and many piddle packs. As time would go on, the stories about the Perrier bottles and piddle packs would mount. No one could figure out why I needed the Perrier and laughed why I carried so many piddle packs.

I flew the F-16 and F-35 for many years doing virtually everything expected as a Lockheed Martin test pilot. In the F-16, we flew tons of out of control and deep stall recovery missions, did High Mach envelope expansion, cleared the envelope for a new terrain following system, dropped lots of bombs for weapons testing and ferried jets from Texas to the Middle East often.  In the F-35, in all 3 variants, we did it all, clearing the jet as part of the decade long formal test phase, called System Design and Demonstration or SDD plus years of testing after SDD was over. You name it, we flew it, and those Perrier bottles came with me each time. Occasionally, they were projectiles, somehow escaping from my helmet bag in flying around the cockpit when I was upside down or in some out-of-control gyration. Most times, I would grab the plastic bottle, secure it and slide it back into the helmet bag.

I landed in Fort Worth one day in a single seat F-16 and couldn’t find my water bottle. During an aggressive flying sequence, it had escaped from my helmet bag and lodged itself behind the canopy, deep in the back behind the ejection seat, unreachable. The solution was to get a broomstick, put gum on the end, reach way back to the extreme end and coax the bottle out. It was a less than glamorous end of the flight and cost me many beers with the ground crew. I would take off with a full water bottle and piddle packs in my helmet bag and return with an empty water bottle and full piddle packs (plural).

Long before we were lectured on hydration, I learned to carry and drink water when flying. Years of flying over the scorching hot Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base taught me to bring water in the jet with me. Test missions were always extended with the abundance of aerial refueling tankers available and I often found myself strapped into an F-16 for many hours at a time. Flying in the California high desert came with super-hot temperatures, greenhouse effect with sun beaming into the cockpit, metal too hot to touch and long missions. We needed water to stay hydrated and alert and we needed to pee as a consequence.

I came from the tiny Canadian Air Force which had never heard of piddle packs in my early days flying the CF-18 Hornet. The precious few times that we had extended missions with aerial refueling came with the assumption that we could all hold our bladders long enough. Who needed to pee? It was completely lost on all the aeromedical physiologists and us aviators about hydration and as a fallout, Tactical Dehydration, because we didn’t have the kit. Tactical Dehydration’s effects on G-Induced loss of consciousness, reduced cognitive alertness, plus other related effects never made it to the ears of the operational flying world. It was all new to us, but I wonder how many times, as pilots, we flew not nearly as sharp or focused as we needed to be on the long missions when they happened.

Everyone has stories about flying with drinks and these days, everyone has a piddle pack story. I learned to bring piddle packs with me so that peeing became a matter-of-fact action, without hesitation. When I returned to Canada after my years flying with the USAF as an exchange test pilot, I was one of a few who brought drinks with me each time in the cockpit.  The RCAF aeromedical system didn’t recognize the issue, hadn’t thought to procure piddle packs and did not understand the threat that Tactical Dehydration posed to pilot performance.

My peers mocked the Perrier bottles with me all the time. Luckily, I understood that I needed to drink and recognized what it should be. Everyone will drink something over the long workday at their desks and for pilots, the long flying days. Clearly, some drinks defeat the purpose of hydrating to help our bodies cope with the stresses. One peer famously stocked a case of Diet Dr Pepper at his desk. Perrier might not have been the perfect hydration drink but obviously some aspartame-loaded diet soda was going to spike blood sugar and hardly support the point of hydration. Think of an athletic activity. Did you want water or diet soda to help support your activity? Diet Dr Pepper wouldn’t be on the top of that list.

So what? It’s all Motherhood and God knows we hear plenty of that in our flying world.

Who cares? What’s the detriment to our bodies and most importantly flying performance? Is the effect of hydration even measurable from one flight to the next, from one pilot to the next? Fighter pilots don’t really fly repetitive mission profiles and it would be like comparing apples to oranges trying to assess one mission versus the next.

But in our test world, we fly single mission sets, attempting to capture the same maneuvers one after the other. In many respects, our test world allows us to match one mission to another and can permit apples to apples comparisons. I can look back at the test pilots who were productive, accomplishing the planned test missions, versus those who were consistently less successful.  I can imagine the effects of fatigue leading to degraded performance and tactical dehydration being a component of that.  It was not just flying skills, something else dragged down individual performances, especially as the missions became longer and longer in duration.

In the years of formal F-35 testing, we practiced every single test mission in the simulator, usually with our engineers monitoring and supporting the practice sessions, before we executed the actual test flight. We would develop the techniques to fly the F-35 to the exact 3-Dimensional point in the sky, to then execute the desired test maneuver.  If we mastered the technique in the simulator, the thinking was that we would be able to repeat that performance when flying the real jet.  But why was it that some pilots could not consistently reach those test points in the air hours later in the day? Part of that answer lies with a very complex analysis of what the weather conditions were but clearly, fatigue led to the degraded performances that we witnessed.  And what contributed to the fatigue? How come some individuals could not fend it off and maintain peak performance?  After hours and hours in the air, everyone starts to get sloppy.  But again, some pilots were consistently prone to degraded performance.  Was it bad sleep, their bad American diet or the lack of hydration because they didn’t want to be forced to pee in the air and had stopped drinking any liquid many hours earlier in the day?  Do such relatively small issues really contribute to sloppy performances for a professional test pilot? Yep…they do.

Flying is a Performance

Does that mean that Diet Dr Pepper is all bad? No, of course not. But if I told someone that they were expected to perform a sporting event for 5 hours, wearing a dry suit the whole time, how would they have prepared for this activity?  Would they eat a bowl of Kellogg’s’ sugary Frosted Flakes (or had Pop tarts) for breakfast, scarf down a white bread, processed ham and Kraft-sliced cheese sandwich, have a bag of chips and then wash it all down with a Diet Dr Pepper before going flying? You don’t want to know the eating habits of some of my peers…so, yes, in some cases they did.

I keep saying it…Flying is a Performance just like a sporting competition.  And once we grasp this concept, our approach to preparing for flying missions changes because we realize the strains that we are going to put our bodies through.

When we demand extraordinary performance on a fighter mission set or during a test mission, everything matters. Fighter pilots ‘dogfighting’ one against each other demands the best of each of us. Get into an F-16, pin yourself to the back of the seat, crushed at 9g during a fight, and you quickly realize just how physical the act of flying is.  So yes, physical performance matters.  And by the way, I’m going to beat the next guy who ate crappy food and loaded up on Diet Dr Pepper before our fight. He’s going to be fighting sugar spikes, a body dehydrated and certainly not be at his peak.  Nutrition and proper hydration and what you drink matters. And so does peeing.

Tactical dehydration is a contributor to this equation. Thinking that a pilot can hold his or her bladder for hours and hours makes zero sense. For years, males had piddle packs to use if they needed to pee. Not elegant, increasingly harder with an anti-exposure dry suit (poopy suit as we call them), all of the awkward British-made flying clothing (G-suits and bulky flying jackets with arm restraints) that we wear with the Martin Baker MB-16 ejection seats in the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35.  It was all hard to use and nearly impossible to unstrap from the ejection seat and safely work a piddle pack through all the layers of clothing.  When we fly, it’s never on a stable mission profile like a long-range ferry mission where there is lots of dead time flying along. Our mission sets are busy, and we don’t have lots of free time to drink and then later pee.  There’s no bathroom break in the air.  Throw real world scenarios and it’s almost impossible to manage those piddle packs and safely being able to pee.  Go up at night, in turbulent weather, stuck flying in close formation with an aerial refueling tanker because the clouds are so thick on a ferry flight.  Orbit in the CAP supporting a Close Air Support mission, having to be ready at a second’s notice to engage the enemy in support of ground troops. And there are many more mission sets like that. That’s when we appreciate that there has to be a better way to solve this drink, pee or don’t drink, don’t pee thing.

Pennies on the Dollar

Crash an airplane or buy the automatic in-flight bladder relief system that’s approved, called Skydrate. Piddle packs were approved decades ago. Did they become dangerous all of a sudden? Well, there have been 3 USAF F-16s that crashed because the pilots unbuckled from their ejection seats and their lap belts interfered with the side stick controllers while they unstrapped and were peeing. In each case, the pilots were forced to eject, luckily lived but the jets crashed.  Overseas, a Turkish F16 pilot was not as lucky and died in this similar event. And there are other stories like this.

In recent years, a US Marine Corps F-35B collided with a Marine Corps KC-130 aerial refueling tanker. The F-35B pilot had to eject and the crew of the KC-130 executed a miraculous belly landing in a farmer’s field struggling to get their stricken aircraft under control and ultimately on the ground.

What was the cost of those distractions? What does it take to convince individual fighter pilots, squadrons or wings to try an automatic in-flight bladder relief system like Skydrate; especially since Skydrate is approved by virtually all western fighter fleets now? How much does it cost to procure Skydrate? A lot less than replacing a 5th Gen fighter…in fact, it is ‘Pennies on the Dollar’.

How come we all buy into leading edge technologies from living on our iPhones to driving Teslas yet won’t give up a Korean War-era piddle pack for a modern-day bladder relief system like Skydrate? We are early adopters of high-tech fighters but stagnant laggards for this element.

We don’t realize the detrimental effect that not peeing has on our performance or the risk to flight safety of a midair that comes from peeing in a bag. We need to educate better and help aviators realize that there exists a simple solution which will enable better performance, help them to stay stronger, sharper, fly better and be more lethal. If we focus on combat-level performance, we lose all our margins for safety and tolerance for error. That’s when we realize that none of this is trivial, and any advantage is one we want to take. There is a solution to all of this, we just need to embrace it. This is low hanging fruit in a world of wildly complex technologies and incredibly difficult mission scenarios for the humans to tackle.

Life won’t get easier as we move beyond early 5th Gen into managing drones flying with us and onto 6th Gen. We need to take the simple solutions and adapt them to day-to-day flying so that we can focus on performing the best each and every time we step to a jet. It’s time to join the 21st century.

So I will take that Perrier bottle every time and Skydrate.  I will be better hydrated, more alert, less prone to cognitive errors, be stronger and kick the other guy’s ass each time because he was too embarrassed to pee.