We were on our final approach to Santa Monica, two miles from touchdown, and I was sweating. It was a sunny afternoon in May. A few minutes earlier when we’d slowed to approach speed, the reduced airflow through the cabin vents had turned the cockpit of our Cessna 172 into a sauna. I was concentrating on keeping the runway threshold at a constant point in the windscreen and running through the before-landing checklist in my head. My instructor, Gary, was at my side.
Fuel selector … both.
Carb heat … on.
The PAPI, a set of red and white lights next to the runway that warns pilots if they're too high or low, was showing three white and one red. I'm too high, I’ve gotta get down there...
Flaps … full.
Seatbelts … fas--
My concentration was interrupted by a sudden whoosh of air in the cockpit. I looked over and, to my horror, Gary’s window was open!
“Am I allowed to open the window like that?” he asked. I was now on short final. My blood pressure started to rise.
“I-- I don’t know.”
“Is the plane still flying?” Gary persisted.
I started to feel overloaded. “Let’s talk about this on the ground.”
“Good,” he said.
We landed. Once the propeller stopped, Gary turned to me.
“Listen carefully. Lots of things are going to happen to you up there. Maybe a window opens, or a radio starts acting funny, or a light doesn’t work. That stuff isn’t dangerous by itself. What’s dangerous is that they distract you. Pilots get into trouble when they get distracted by a minor problem and forget to fly the plane. Your first job is to fly the plane. Don’t panic. Just fly the plane.”
Gary was right. I would later read about many accidents caused by pilot distraction. Perhaps the most famous is Eastern Airlines Flight 401. Shortly before landing on a dark night, the crew couldn’t verify that their landing gear was down and locked. All three pilots in the cockpit diverted their attention to solving the problem. None of them noticed that the autopilot had been misconfigured and the plane gradually flew itself into the Florida Everglades. Burned-out light bulbs can’t crash planes, but they can distract pilots from their duty fly one.
Vegas, baby! In my own private plane! Could there be anything cooler?
Several months had passed since the window incident. I was now a private pilot and well into my instrument training. I was also an airplane owner! After months of searching I’d finally brought home a Cessna Cardinal RG. I’d already gotten 10 hours of instruction with Gary in my new craft, but my insurance required me to fly another 10 hours solo before carrying any passengers. I planned some short trips on my own, the last of which was to Vegas and back. It’s not a fun city without friends, so I hadn’t planned to stay -- just fly up, get a bite to eat at the airport, and fly home.
My plan was to land at Las Vegas International which lies at the center of a mass of complex aerial rules and restrictions known as
“Bravo airspace.” Learning to fly around LAX, I’d gained plenty of experience flying near such areas … but in it? That I'd never done. I reviewed the charts and mentally prepared to tangle with complex and unfamiliar airspace and its controllers.
It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon. The weather was perfect, but the instructors standing around the flight school had a concern.
“Make sure you’re hydrated before you go up there,” one said. The route from LA to Vegas goes through the Mojave Desert. “You don’t want to get light-headed or pass out while you’re flying! And make sure you have extra water in case you need to make an emergency landing.”
Wise advice, it seemed. I drank a bottle of water. Then downed a second just to be sure. For good measure, I also filled a sport bottle with ice water and stuffed it into my flight bag. I lifted off from Santa Monica and pointed the plane towards the mountain pass to Palmdale. The plane was operating beautifully -- let me tell you, there’s almost nothing that beats flying 165 m.p.h over a highway while the cars underneath you are stuck in traffic. I settled in at 7,500’ for the 90 minute flight. Vegas, baby!
As I reached the desert I realized a slight flaw in my flight planning. All that water was having the obvious effect. I had to pee. It’s not that bad, I told myself. This can wait. I’m only an hour away from landing. Vegas!!
Over the next ten minutes my body informed me, no, this wouldn't wait an hour. I tried to focus on the sectional chart but my mind kept wandering to Niagra Falls and the giant Bellagio fountain. I’d be tangling with Bravo airspace soon but couldn’t even think straight!
OK, I thought. What are my options? I looked down and found the only one: my sport bottle. Step 1 was to empty it. The only place to do that seemed to be into my stomach. Have you ever tried throwing back a pint of ice water at a time when your bladder feels one turbulent bump away from rupturing? It’s not easy! I finally managed to do it, feeling like an overfilled water balloon.
All right. Almost there. Now for Step 2: refill the bottle. The air was smooth and the radio was quiet. I might just be able to get away with this!
I carefully trimmed the plane until it flew straight and level without control inputs. I took my hands off the controls tentatively -- nothing seemed to happen. All right, J., you can do this. I opened the bottle, ever-so-carefully unzipped and got myself into it. The relief that followed was indescribable. Euphoria!
Relief quickly turned to panic. The bottle seemed to be filling at an alarming rate. Was it possible that my bladder actually had a larger capacity than this bottle? I really didn’t want to find out empirically. I’d owned this plane for 3 weeks and I sure wasn’t going to let my own pee geyser erupt from this bottle all over my upholstery!
Alas, the bottle was opaque. I willed myself to stop peeing, pulled myself out and peeked in the bottle to check how much space was left. This cycle repeated several times, one hand holding the bottle and the other holding myself to prevent pee from spraying everywhere like a loose firehose. I had no hands free to fly the plane. The situation was … let's just say: delicate.
The third time through this dance I realized something alarming: my gonads were cold. Oh no! Cold gonads must mean there was a fluid leak. Crap!
Then I noticed something else: a hiss. Ssssssss....... What was that? I realized I was cold because of air, not liquid. Where was this airflow coming from?
A moment later, this question was answered. SssssssssssssPOP. The latch had not been secure. My door popped open!
Oh. Holy. Hell.
My indicated airspeed was about 120 m.p.h. and turbulent air was rushing around the cockpit. It was also the first moment in my life I remember being afraid of heights. I sat for a moment, dumbfounded. My heart raced. Both hands were still occupied holding my bottle and my junk. What the hell do I do!?
Don’t panic, Gary’s words echoed through my head. The plane still flies fine with the door open.
Oh god. Ok. Let’s figure this out. First thing’s first: I decided that this was not an emergency. Flailing around would make it one -- let’s avoid that. The only thing that would make this an emergency, I reasoned, would be if I somehow fell out of the plane. I used my non-bottle hand to verify my seatbelt was secure. I also checked behind me to make sure there was nothing loose in the back seat that might depart the aircraft.
All right. I decided I was safe. What next? I needed both hands to close and latch the door. My hands, however, were occupied with Operation PeePlosion. So, I reasoned, the correct next step was to finish peeing. I would look back later and see this as having been my first major executive decision as a pilot-in-command. With wind whipping around my feet I filled the remaining third of the bottle, sealed it up, and set it on the floor like a boss.
Finally, with both hands now free, I tried to close the door -- no luck. The wind was too strong. I throttled back, slowed the plane down to about 75, and was able to slam and latch it at last.
I made my way into Las Vegas, landing on runway 19R and shutting down in front of the executive terminal where all the fancy private jets land. I grabbed the bottle and hopped out of the plane to use an actual restroom and find some food.
I took 20 steps and froze: it was Las Vegas. It was a Saturday afternoon. Playboys and party girls were descending on the city. There were two private jets parked in front of me; they literally had red carpets running out to them. Fashionable men were emerging from the aircraft with women on their arms -- blonde, leggy women in skin-tight clubbing dresses and immaculate makeup. They were ready for a night on the town. I was standing there in a ratty t-shirt, unshaven, and holding a warm bottle of my own piss.
I couldn’t do it. I turned back. I found a quiet spot on the tarmac near my tie-down and emptied the bottle onto the ground. I hoped it would be discrete, but …. I guess I hadn’t had enough to drink after all. The pee was a radioactive shade of yellow.
“Well, at least this can’t get any more embarrassing,” I thought to myself.
“CLEAR!” Someone parked in the next row shouted a warning and started up their turboprop. The propwash started to propel my giant ocean of shame downwind, spreading it out over the tarmac and spraying flecks pee all over me and my plane.
I looked up to see a lineman giving me a icy glare. He shook his head sadly and drove off.
I returned to Vegas a couple of weeks later. It doesn’t rain there very often so the ramp was still stained yellow. I hope it's gone by now, but if you're ever there and see a yellow patch, raise a sport bottle and toast the day I learned how to keep my cool.