So there I was…smack in the middle of the Arabian Gulf at the helm of an F/A-18 fighter jet thirty thousand feet overhead one of the most powerful warships in the world… and I had to shit. Bad.
The day started just like any other onboard the aircraft carrier. I woke up at around 10, just in time for lunch – or, as many on the boat call it, “aviator breakfast.” We typically flew from about noon to just after midnight, causing the air wing (the combination of fighter, helicopter and early warning squadrons) to be on a slightly skewed daily schedule compared to most others onboard.
I rendezvoused with my squadron mates in the wardroom and chowed down on some catfish and rice pilaf. I had a night flight later that day, so I had the whole afternoon and evening to get my work done prior to briefing the flight. The rowing machine in the seaside gym provided a good distraction from being on a boat for the past five months. Working on the computers in the ready room, studying tactics, and talking to loved ones back home shaved off a few hours of the day. Maybe I even played a game of spades with some pals before heading to dinner. It seemed like a very benign, standard day — certainly not one that would result in me earning a callsign that my friends and coworkers still call me to this day.
[Editor’s note: While this story from my good friend Bobby isn’t about cars, it falls under The Autopian’s “Transportation” umbrella. So you can expect to continue seeing occasional plane, boat, and space stuff mixed in with all the car nerdiness here. -DT]
I Was Proud To Have Avoided A Callsign So Long
Callsigns are necessary in naval aviation. Over time I’ve developed a great appreciation for them. Even though they’re wacky most of the time, it’s almost more professional to call someone by some abstract nickname than their first name, or even “Ms. So-and-so.” While one may simply be a play on someone’s name, i.e. “Jonesy” Jones, or an indicator of personality, i.e. “Party Steve,” most are results of shenanigans perpetrated on or around the members of the squadron.
I had only been in the squadron for about six months up to this point and, pridefully, had not earned myself a callsign just yet. There was conjecture about naming me after my head, which is apparently reminiscent of a dinosaur’s head. There was talk of naming me after my quiet disposition, which would later turn out to be a complete misread. But up to this point, the list of suggestions on the board were scarce. And I was mighty proud of that.
Flying Jets Is Never “Routine”
The strike group had been operating in the Arabian Gulf for about 2 months at this point. Operations were going smoothly, but “routine” isn’t a word that exists in the vocabulary of most sailors and aviators. We were operating very close to borders and coastlines of countries that didn’t want us there. Every day we were reminded of that through radio calls and intelligence briefings. Every flight was new.
Wars don’t begin predictably, and chaos can happen at any time, even while exercising the utmost diligence. Also, anything can happen to your jet at any time. Jets flying off of carriers take a beating. Steam powered catapults sling 60,000 pound hunks of metal to 150 mph in less than three seconds, and the jets do that three times a day. At the end of an hour and a half flight, we controllably crash the jet into one of four arresting cables strewn across a solid steel flight deck at a descent rate of 800 feet per minute. Precision and accuracy are the names of the game in naval aviation, and when you’re off your game, there’s no telling how that will affect the flight.
Surf-N-Turf And Coffee
I had been flying night flights every night for the past few weeks up to this point, and it was taking its toll on me. Landing a jet on a carrier at night is truly terrifying. Everything is controlled with your fingertips; the glideslope, the lineup control, and the angle of attack of the aircraft. My legs were shaking after every “trap,” or landing, so I needed my body to be in tip-top shape. That’s why, on this particular night, I was happy to see that it was surf-n-turf night in the wardroom. Steak and lobster usually signifies that bad news is coming, but I was fat, dumb and happy, and ready to eat some good shellfish.
I scarfed down a tail and a steak, and when I got up to the ready room to brief, I figured: “It’s a late flight, I’ll have myself a cuppa coffee.” The brief was short and sweet. My WSO (Weapons and System Officer) and I were going to practice employing High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) with no weapons onboard the jet so we could be ready if we did have to employ it at some point. We would simply load a training code on the jet and practice pushing buttons to our hearts content. When we were finished briefing, I began to realize that I had what I lovingly refer to as the “bubble-guts.” I went to the bathroom and got the demons out of me before walking on the jet. But when I entered the aircraft, the coffee kicked in.
I’ve always had a complex relationship with coffee. I am addicted to the taste. I love it black, or with cream and sugar — whatever. But sometimes it takes its revenge, and tonight was one of those nights. As soon as I sat in the seat I had to pee. Doing this in the jet is fairly easy. Simply pull out an “AIRCREW RELIEF BAG” or “piddle pack” as we call it, do your business into it, roll it up, put it in your bag and go. It has little gel beads that absorb moisture and turn it into a margarita of sorts, and there’s no mess. We lined up for the catapult shot, did our checks, held on tight, and the shot hit hard. As soon as we started accelerating at about three times the force of gravity, I felt something move in me. When I took the controls I immediately had the thought that this might be a long hour and a half.
“This is The Pilot in Aircraft 202. I Shit my Pants. I Need a Cleanup Crew.”
I leveled off at 30,000 ft and set autopilot so that the two of us could practice button-pushing while being “heads-down” in the cockpit. As soon as I set the autopilot I had to pee again. Boom, done. Move on. Ten minutes later – pee. At this point my guts started bubbling again. I stopped looking at the displays, put my sweaty hands on the handles on the canopy rail, and tried to sit as still as I could. This was only about half an hour into the flight. I didn’t tell my WSO anything. I pulled out another piddle pack to do my business again, but this time there was another force at play. Just to the south of where I was aiming, a monster was trying to get out. I couldn’t isolate the valves; nothing came out of either. My stomach roiled while I was trying to contract one side and relax the other. Finally I said over the internal communications: “Dude, I think this might be the night. I have the bubble guts and I need you to put your mask on.” A firm “Okay bud do what you need to do” gave me confidence that, while it certainly felt like the end of the world, we were in this together.
There is no stronger bond between two people than the one they build while sharing a cockpit that smells like nuclear waste.
I made the decision that it had to be done. I had to let loose to relieve the pressure on both fronts. I’d heard stories of legendary pilots completely disrobing (save their helmet), using their flight bag as a makeshift lavatory (one might call it a “shiddle pack”), and then carrying on. So I safed up my ejection seat, released the straps and unzipped. Quickly realizing this was more of an endeavor than I was equipped for, I strapped back in and armed my seat. Claustrophobia is an understatement at this point. I had 8 inches of open space to either side, seat behind me, displays in front of me, and directly outside all of that was air with no oxygen that was -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus I was flirting with some very narrow airspace boundaries with huge consequences if violated. I decided at that moment that my bowels were not my highest priority. I simply relaxed, and let the warmth spread across my seat. It was so hot, it felt like a hot tub. It bubbled and oozed and was revolting but strangely comforting. At this very moment my WSO said “woah, I didn’t know HARM had a targeting option, that’s cool.”
I responded loudly: “I don’t give a fuck.”
Being ornery wasn’t the answer, but I was in my own personal hell. That being said, I could finally pee again, so that was nice. I told him what I did, and he said that we should probably communicate this back to the ship somehow. I said I’d take the comms; I was the one who had soiled his seat, after all.
Up to this point, there were a few people I knew who had done this, and there was a particular incident from which I’d learned a lot of lessons. A pilot had called back to our ship and told the team that he’d had a “physiological episode,” which led the ship to believe he was in a jet that may have been starving him of oxygen. We spooled up the flight doc and told the Landing Signals Officers (LSOs) that the pilot may be hypoxic. By using euphemisms like physiological episode, it led the ship down a path that spiraled out of control. The pilot clarified the situation upon querying, but I remember our Commanding Officer telling us to be very clear on the radios if anything happened. So, when it was my turn to make the embarrassing call, I simply said: “This is the pilot in aircraft 202. I shit my pants. I need a cleanup crew.” After 10 seconds or so, he responded with his callsign and was obviously stifling a laugh so hard I could see his face in my head.
Word of what had happened got passed to the Landing Signals Officers on the flight deck. They were the guys standing on the ship, grading every landing, and standing in to help in case of unusual situations (Sometimes a pilot gets low and needs a “power” call from the LSO to keep him or her on optimum glideslope, for example).
When I checked in with the ship, the bubbles came back, and I just let loose again, feeling the warmth spread even further throughout my pants. I couldn’t imagine the horror, and I didn’t even look down. The approach was uneventful until I had to fly “the ball.” I scanned for lineup, and maintained glideslope until I was almost to the point of touchdown. I added just a hair too much power and sailed over the wires on the flight deck. I didn’t stop; I had to pull back up. That’s called a “bolter.”
I had leaned forward in my seat expecting the wires to stop me, but when they didn’t, my butt hydroplaned backward in my seat like a Zamboni cleaning up a wet ice rink. I was flying again, and had to sit in my own shit for 10 more minutes. Flying around the pattern for another landing was embarrassing, but it couldn’t get much worse at this point. I was already thinking about laughing about this later.
The next approach was uneventful, an OK 3-wire (the pass we aim for). But the damage was done. I knew that everyone in the air wing already knew. I had the long taxi up the bow of the ship to the darkest part of the flight deck. As soon as I got there I saw my roommate standing there with a towel and an extra flight suit, and I already felt a little better. When my WSO stepped out of the jet first, the plane captain shined a blue light on the ladder for him so he could see where his feet were going. When I got out and felt the heavy load in my underwear heaving beneath me, there was no light. I didn’t blame him for not wanting to see the carnage, but I was kind of miffed.
I went straight to the bathroom right beneath the flight deck and carefully disrobed.
Assessing The Undergarment Wreckage
This is the point where I’d like to extend a firm thank you to Mr. Calvin Klein. Shockingly, as I peeled off my flight gear (g-suit, vest, flight suit) I noticed that there wasn’t anything there. The high thread count and durable construction of your Cotton-Stretch underwear is incomparable. I will wear your underwear for the rest of my life. It kept pounds of brownie batter completely contained through high-g maneuvers and an aircraft carrier arrestment. Your underwear is tested, sir. Thank you.
There was, however, another guy in the restroom who, upon seeing me in full flight gear, asked: “What the fuck are you doing?” I looked at him with a thousand-yard stare and responded: “I shit my pants. Any more questions?” He quickly nodded his head in an apparent sign of respect and went on his merry way. I spent the next hour in complete agony as the boat shower first did not turn on, then violently shifted from scalding hot to ice cold, per usual. I picked away at the mess and was truly and completely miserable. Afterwards I put my friend’s flight suit on, made my way to the laundry room, and carefully washed my flight gear per protocol (yes, there’s a protocol for “soiled flight gear”).
My New Callsign
When I got back to the ready room, the guy from the “physiological episode” incident was there. He immediately said “dude” in his signature low-pitched voice and opened his arms for a hug. I knew he completely understood me as a person at that moment. I turned my head and saw that the callsign review board was FILLED to the brim with callsigns for me. I figured I could look at them in the morning.
When it came time to decide my callsign, there were two options that everyone rallied behind. The first was an ode to our radio calls to communicate missile-shoots. “Fox-two” is the brevity term for shooting a heat seeking missile, and if you add “two-ship” to it, it means you shot two missiles at two different aircraft. The suggestion “Fox-poo two-shits” had a large contingent of the squadron howling. The other one was simply “STAB” for “shit twice and boltered.” The votes were 50-50. We were at a bar in Manila, Philippines at the time, and it was decided that each callsign would be assigned a representative, and whoever could finish their beverage faster would win.
Now I’m STAB.
(Top illustration: Syd. Body illustrations: Jason Torchinsky)