F-35 pilots assist in project to provide female Airmen options for bladder relief

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- At every air show, at least one kid works up the courage to ask pilot Kristen Wolfe the question on most kids’ minds: “How do you pee in the airplane?”

The answer for all pilots, especially female pilots, is “not easily.”  The solutions are: “holding it” like a little kid on a long car ride, purposefully dehydrating, or using a few non-ideal systems in an emergency. All are uncomfortable.  

“There are a couple of different systems that we use,” said Capt. Kirsten Eissman, another F-35 pilot with the 388th Fighter Wing here. “They have been trying to improve them, unfortunately, none of them are great. They either don’t function properly, or to get in a position to use them in the F-35, requires us to unbuckle our safety harness, which is not ideal. Even then, there’s usually the potential to make a mess.”

From a 90-minute training sortie to a 10-hour combat mission, it is imperative that pilots stay hydrated. Pulling Gs in training, their bodies may be subjected to up to 9 times the force of gravity, the missions are also mentally taxing.

Many of the female pilots have turned to “tactical dehydration” to avoid having to urinate.  The Air Force is working toward a better solution. Air Force Lifecycle Management Center’s Human Systems Division, Aircrew Performance is working with a contractor to test a new system, specifically designed for females.

“Male and female anatomy is different, and it’s harder to come up with a design that works with every fighter platform and gives female pilots options,” said Capt. Kathleen Hendershott, AFLCMC’s program manager for the project. “The design we are testing now is something that can be worn comfortably under any flight gear, resting against the body and attaching to a pump that the pilots can activate when they need to urinate. The device will draw the liquid away from them.”

Designed by Airion, the new device needs to be vetted both in ground and air tests before it can be fielded safely. So far, they have tested aircrew with the A-10, F-15, F-16, and F-35. Last week, Eissman and fellow female pilots from the 388th assisted in the F-35 testing here.

“Somebody has to do it,” Eissman laughed. “They were super nice, they showed us how to operate it, how to wear it. Then we just sat there hydrating for about five hours, making sure that wearing it is compatible with the F-35 seat, that it was comfortable and operating the way it was supposed to.”

The team from AFLCMC will now move on to working with pilots on air testing the device during training sorties with the goal of fielding a final product in the fall of 2024.

For Eismann and her fellow pilots, it can’t come soon enough.

“It’s no fun being uncomfortable for hours. This device is smaller, flatter, infinitely more comfortable, and it works,” Eissman said.