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I had been strapped into the Martin-Baker ACES II ejection seat for a little over four hours when the pain set in. It was a stinging pain running down the back of my right leg that felt like I was sitting on pins and needles. I realized I hadn’t been stretching and flexing my legs like I should have. I reached down to the rudder peddle adjust knob (located just below the Center Multi Function Display between my knees) and pulled while kicking my feet out and pushing the rudder peddles as far away from me as I could. I kept the muscles in my legs and butt flexed while I pushed the g-suit test button.
With the g-suit test button depressed my ATAGS (Advanced Technology Anti-Gravity Suit) inflated fully and squeezed my legs just beyond the threshold of pain. I winced as I kept the button depressed for several seconds, and then breathed a sigh of relief as I released the test button allowing my ATAGS to deflate. My legs relaxed as the flow of blood returned to them relieving the original pain. I made a mental note to perform this little exercise more frequently throughout the remaining seven hours of flight time.
Flying halfway across the globe in a fighter isn’t the most comfortable undertaking, but I still think it beats flying coach. My cockpit was packed with charts, approach books, snacks, and my toiletries kit (I didn’t want my tube of toothpaste exploding in the sniper cases located in the unpressurized side weapons bays.) But probably the most important item packed in the cockpit was my supply of Piddle-Paks.
With no lavatory onboard there aren’t too many options available when it comes time to take a leak. Piddle-Paks aren’t the only solution to this problem, but they are probably the best one. The standard pack is a clear plastic bag with a small, grainy powder inside that absorbs liquid and turns it to gel. I’m not 100% sure how the use of this little luxury works for females, but for guys it becomes a problem of navigating zippers and layers of clothing to hit the target.
Because this feat can detract from flying the aircraft, the pilot making an attempt at urination will typically notify his flight mates by telling them he is “race horse”. When someone is race horse, the other pilots monitor his aircraft to make sure he’s not going to run into a flight member or the tanker, thus backing him up to ensure safety of flight. This deed becomes even more difficult when having to maintain close formation due to reduced visibility while flying through weather.
I will usually safe up the ejection seat (to preclude me from accidentally ejecting myself while peeing into a bag – that would be the ultimate humiliation) and set the autopilot to Attitude Hold while in wings-level flight. In spite of one’s best efforts to make an uneventful attempt at inflight urination, there usually are small losses. One of the guys in my flight realized too late his Piddle-Pak had a hole in it and it leaked out all over the floor of the cockpit before it could be gelatinized.
One other painful aspect of ocean crossings is the requirement to “dress for egress”. In the event of an ejection over the North Atlantic in January you wouldn’t last very long in the freezing waters. So, to prolong your agony and delay your inevitable death you are required to wear a “Poopy Suit” when crossing the pond and waters are considered cold enough to warrant such apparel. A Poopy Suit is essentially a dry suit with two zippers: one to get into the suit, and one for “relief” (i.e. one more obstacle to the comfortable use of a Piddle-Pak).
After the initial 11-hour flight and 36-hour rest stop at our intermediate location it was time to don the Poopy Suits and prepare for our 10-hour ride back home. Unfortunately that morning we were reminded of the key part the tankers play in the plan. Two of our tankers were broken and we only had three able to accompany us that morning. This meant we wouldn’t make it all the way home, but would have to stop on the East Coast of the U.S. for a night. We weren’t all that excited about another possibility to break a jet and get stuck somewhere that wasn’t home.
Nonetheless, our planned 10-hour flight now became a 6-hour ocean crossing – much more bearable in a Poopy Suit. The weather couldn’t have been better as we leaped into the sky in our high-tech war machines. War was the last thing on my mind as I admired the beauty of the deep blue ocean beneath me, replete with foaming white caps. As amazing a view as it was, I did not want to find myself down in the frigid waters. I paid extra attention to my fuel burn, divert locations, and the status of my aircraft systems.
The radios were mostly quiet during the second leg of our journey.
I wedged some iPod earbuds in between my helmet ear cups and my Access earplugs and cranked some Def Tones to get things kicked off. Occasionally one of our boys on the tanker would jump on the boom frequency and throw out some trivia questions, but I was mostly left alone to my thoughts.
After our last AR of the ocean crossing we pushed ahead of the tankers, set 0.9 Mach and sped toward our destination on the East Coast. The scene was a glorious one as we came into sight of the North American continent. As breathtaking as sights around the world are, there is truly no place that greets the eyes like one’s homeland. As the wheels touched down on American soil, I was relieved to have the more difficult part of the journey behind me. A good night’s sleep and a 5-hour flight (into the wind again!) was all that stood between me and home.
Join us later this week for the ending to this epic journey!