Midair relief about to get easier for pilots

By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer

Posted : Tuesday May 27, 2008 7:21:05 EDT

When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Navy astronaut Lisa Nowak reportedly used a diaper. Jerry Seinfeld used the wall of that parking garage. Fighter pilots use “piddle packs,” when they just can’t wait until they land.

Trouble is those packs, which contain gel to absorb a pilot’s urine, can sometimes be out of reach, and that can be dangerous when you’re on the stick of a jet fighter.

But have no fear — the next generation piddle pack is on the way.

A small Vermont medical company has developed a system to pump urine from a person’s underwear to a sanitary pouch so pilots don’t even have to unstrap their lap belts when nature calls.

The Advanced Mission Extender Device created by Omni Medical Systems has male and female versions. The men’s model uses a cup, while the women’s model looks like a sanitary napkin with holes to funnel out the urine. Both are made from a flexible urethane material.

When a pilot has to go, he or she turns on the pump that inflates the cup or sanitary napkin. The pump then sucks the urine from the cup or napkin through a tube into a sealed bag with a chemical that transforms it into a gel to be stored the rest of the flight.

“The most important piece of this whole system was to make sure pilots didn’t have to disrobe at all,” said Mark Harvie, Omni Medical Systems’ owner. “What pilots had before was unsafe and cumbersome.”

To avoid having to go during a flight, pilots sometimes avoid drinking any fluids before long sorties, making them more susceptible to pass out from heat or G-forces, said Col. Phil Murdock, an F-16 pilot who tested the device.

When pilots in small cockpits like the F-15 or F-16 use the current packs, disrobing means they can sometimes get their straps caught on flight controls or be distracted them from the mission. It’s hardest when pilots must fly through long periods of harsh weather or in formation and can’t find a lull to safely pee, said Capt. Brandon Abel, an F-15 pilot with the 65th Aggressor Squadron.

Abel doesn’t mind using the piddle packs, but said he could see the value of the AMXD if he was wearing multiple layers including an anti-exposure suit designed to protect pilots from frigid water in case of a crash.

Harvie, a nonmilitary pilot since 1974, saw a request from the Defense Department in 2002 for a device to replace piddle packs .

So far Omni has shipped 300 AMXDs to Air Force pilots across the world priced at $2,800, not including the sealed bags, with plans to expand production. Harvie said he didn’t know when the AMXD could be widely issued across the service.

The Army and Navy have also expressed interest including asking for a separate but similar device for soldiers to wear under chemical suits, Harvie said. Omni has fielded orders from other countries including the Netherlands and England.

Vermont Air National Guard pilots have tested this new system thus far with mixed results.

Worn against his body, Murdock said he barely noticed it until he had to pee and inflated the cup.

“This is a good starting point and there is definitely potential in it,” he said, adding “some pilots have stayed 100 percent dry while others [whose genitalia didn’t fit the cup] have experienced leakage.”

Harvie said his company is still developing the AMXD and is working toward keeping all pilots dry while performing all flight maneuvers. During one test, a pilot successfully took off while urinating and stayed dry, he said.