Remember when you were a kid—7 or 8 years old? I struggle to do so, but there are a few incidents I can’t forget. If you lived in a cold climate (and, as an Air Force BRAT I did—from time to time), you’ll remember your mother preparing you to venture out into the snow-covered environment outside your front door. There were layers upon layers of cold weather apparel—underwear (thermals if you had them), jeans, shirts, sweaters, multi-layered socks and boots of some description, capped off with big, wooly mittens, connected by a string so you wouldn’t lose one of them and an equally enormous wooly hat pulled down over your ears. Add your Nanook of the North parka or Navy Peacoat and you were doing a credible impression of the Michelin Man. I remember Mom launching me out into the frozen wasteland that was our front yard, and I did all that I could do swathed in all that cozy warmth: Sweet Fox Alpha.
Fast forward many years and I had forgotten all about those halcyon days because I was now a fighter pilot in Uncle Sam’s Flying Circus. All my early training and my combat tour had been accomplished in warm climates, and my follow-on assignments to Torrejon, Spain and Homestead in Florida were equally balmy for the most part, but then, at the ripe old age of 32, I found myself driving F-4s at RAF Bentwaters in England. I arrived in the summer and, as I had always done before, strode out to my mighty Phantom in nothing more substantial than a flight suit (with sleeves rolled up and zipper at half-mast—you could get away with that in those days).
As the days grew shorter and autumn arrived, the preflight briefing was supplemented with a new item: North Sea temperature. I wasn’t quite sure what this had to do with anything until one chilly September morning, the weatherman announced that the North Sea temp was 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). This pronouncement was greeted with a cacophony of wails and catcalls from those who had been at Bentwaters longer than I and one of my colleagues explained to me that this was the inaugural decree of 1977 for donning the dreaded Anti-Exposure Suit. From this point forward, any sea temp below 60F would result in the requirement to ‘suit up’ in the fighter pilot’s cold weather armor. When I got to my locker that day, I was greeted with the sight of a great rubber ‘onesie’ hanging on the door and memories of Mom heaping layers of clothing on me before tossing me out in the snow came flooding back.
To explain this properly, I need to give you a brief tutorial on the anti-exposure suit. Known to all who wore them as a ‘Poopy Suit’ because of the odor generated after wearing them over an extended period, this form-fitting torture chamber is made of rubber with tight seals around the neck and wrists. There are integral booties to keep your feet dry, a single straight zipper across the chest which enables you (with a little help from your friends) to peel the damned thing on or off over your head and a smaller vertical zipper at the crotch (more about that later). The requisite layers of clothing involved are underwear, thermal underwear, Nomex fire-retardant flight suit, anti-exposure suit, harness and ‘G’-suit. Consequently, it is very low on the list of comfortable lounging apparel. It has its advantages, however: if you are forced to eject over very cold water (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) it keeps you relatively dry and, with a bit of luck helps you live a few minutes longer until you’re picked up by someone who just happens to be in your vicinity. We routinely wore them when flying training missions over the North Sea or North Atlantic and I can tell you now, we didn’t look forward to trying to do our thing while encumbered with what amounted to a hot, heavy suit of rubberized armor.
If the Poopy Suit was uncomfortable during an hours’ air combat maneuvering over the North Sea, it was damn near unbearable on a lengthy deployment flight. In my book, From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog, I’ve devoted a full chapter to a squadron A-10 deployment from Myrtle Beach AFB in the US to RAF Bentwaters in England via the Azores in January 1979. Try it; you’ll like it. The following is derived from that chapter.
On over water deployments, fighters are accompanied by a C-130 ‘Duckbutt’ aircraft. These shepherd aircraft also provided a much more sophisticated level of navigation than the A-10s had onboard and additional travel aids such as weather avoidance radars and long-range radio communications.
We were very slightly jealous of these goodies, although not one of us would have sacrificed one pound of JP4 jet fuel to have them installed in our jets. What we did covet in a very big way was one of the most basic features of any large aircraft: a toilet. In a very cramped cockpit, we could always find room for a bit of food and liquid, but unlike our Big Buddies the tanker crews, there was no short stroll to the conveniences to dispose of the natural consequence of our sustenance. As always, the Air Force had found a way to cater to our biological needs, at least in terms of liquid waste. Long ago, in the dawn of time, some clever boffin had come up with a contraption which allowed fidgeting aircrew in a tiny cockpit to relieve themselves.
Known officially as a ‘Urine Collection Device’, this gadget was undoubtedly renamed by a pilot in less than a heartbeat and was universally renowned as the ‘Piddle Pack’, essentially a thick vinyl bag tapered into a handy receptacle at the top. Inside the bag were three or four highly compressed sponges which looked like thin cardboard when dry but would expand dramatically when liquid was added.
The bad news, if you recall the dissertation above, is that maneuvering through the varied and numerous layers of clothing, including the Poopy Suit, to locate the necessary appendage for insertion into the Piddle Pack was about as close to Mission Impossible as it comes. If you successfully managed this process, on mission completion you rolled the open receptacle end closed and clamped it shut with heavy twist ties. Then, after landing, you greeted the eager young Crew Chief who climbed up the ladder to help you unstrap by handing him (or her) this slightly glorified specimen bag. This was not the reunion they were hoping for after you’d abused their airplane for the last hour (or much longer on a deployment).
The final blow to carefree long-distance flying was the fact that the A-10 had no credible autopilot. Therefore, in order to make any reasonable attempt at using the Piddle Pack it was necessary to use hands, knees or in some cases feet to fly the airplane safely while working on Mission Impossible in the background. A few of our number who suffered from TBS (tiny bladder syndrome) actually gave this a try enroute and we added insult to their obvious injury through unrestrained harassment on the radio as they fell out of formation while fumbling with the aircraft, the Poopy Suit and their appendages, not necessarily in that order. Fortunately, on the deployment, none of them actually hit the water while flailing about but reported success rates for Mission Impossible were inconclusive. The rest of us managed to hang on, painful though it was, until we were able to sprinkle the tarmac after landing.