Pilot Range Extenders: When You Gotta Go

It's a delicate subject but one that must be addressed: When nature calls while aloft, we suggest having at least one TravelJohn aboard.

Keep a straight face.

Couldn’t do it, could you?

This subject is proof positive that every pilot’s idea of humor effectively stopped developing as a four-year-old making potty jokes. 

We’ll go further than making fun of discomfort and express our concern that the pressing need for a bathroom may we’ll be a safety of flight issue. We’ve experienced the nearly overwhelming desire to urinate as the clouds got increasingly darker as we approached minimums on an ILS in fog and rain and had to fight the intense urge to blow on through DA because we had to go now. 

In reading reports of pilots of sterling reputation who had indeed pressed on below minimums and perished after hitting terrain or obstructions, we cannot help but wonder whether some of them were so in need of the loo that their judgment was compromised.

So, with determination to deal with the issue as mature adults—nope, won’t work—we’ll look at the issue, what pilots have done over the years and what’s now available commercially for our airborne restroom needs. 


Pilots have been dealing with the matter of human waste since there have been hot air balloons and have, consequently, been either improvising or planning, depending on their approach to aviation. 

Things were particularly bad during World War I when aircraft powered by rotary engines (the crankshaft was fixed to the airframe and the entire engine and prop revolved) were lubricated by castor oil. The engines flung the powerfully diuretic oil with abandon, so even short missions brought on the pressing need to urinate. 

Reliable reports from the time indicate that a significant number of combat pilots died with their pants around their knees after they lost control while relieving themselves. Such are the glories of war. 

Countclockwise from top: Little John pilot urinal with Lady J adapter; TravelJohn disposable urinal 18-pack with two individual urinals, one opened and folded as shipped with tissues; a pickle jar, sans pickles, has been used for airborne relief for decades.


In the civilian world of small, single-engine airplanes our research (want to try calling a pilot to ask about this subject?) indicated that bottles and jars were the device of choice for inflight defueling. We are aware of a couple of families that made use of large-size pickle jars as they could be used easily by males and females—both adults and kids. Importantly, the lid sealed well. They reported keeping a paper towel or two in the jar to prevent splashing during use.  

Families told us of making do after failing to plan ahead. We learned that barf bags work reasonably we’ll and have the advantage that they are watertight and have a wrap to tie them closed. Others told us of removing things that they had put in zipper lock bags and using the bag. 

That, of course, segued into comments about how difficult it can be for a user, especially a female, to use a relief device in flight in the confines of a general aviation airplane. We were told that having to improvise when also dealing with intense biological pressure is not a good time to learn how to do something. Accordingly, we recommend that all pilots (and their regular passengers) who ever anticipate the need to relieve themselves in flight do some planning and practice. 

We were also told by a woman who flies a Vans RV that her autopilot paid for itself the first time that she had to make use of a zipper lock bag. 

Our survey of the regular commercial purveyors of aviation equipment resulted in finding only two urinals designed for little airplanes. 


The Little John pilot urinal, $10.95 from Sporty’s (www.sportys.com), is advertised as a spill-proof portable urinal that can also be used for motion sickness. We also learned that it is regularly used in the medical field for individuals who are bedfast. It must be cleaned after use.

It consists of a tube and reservoir with a handle and can hold 32 ounces of liquid. For women, there is a Lady J adapter ($8.99) that slides into the mouth of the urinal. 

Our test of a unit found that the cap leaked when it was shaken after use. That was confirmed by some comments by users on Sporty’s website. 

One woman told us that its size and shape made it difficult to use in a small airplane. A number of men told us that they were very happy with theirs and some kept two in their airplanes for use, noting that they stow easily under a seat. 


Making use of disposable diaper technology, the TravelJohn ($8.50 for 3, $44.95 for 18 at Sporty’s) appeared on the aviation market in the mid-1990s and was an immediate hit. We recall a doctor rushing into our sister publication AVweb’s pressroom at Oshkosh, and eagerly announcing that he’d just discovered the TravelJohn. He then went into the restroom, used it, emerged holding it and turned it upside down to show that all of the liquid had been absorbed. 

Users told us that they greatly appreciated the absorbent capabilities and many said that they buy a box and keep several in the airplane seatbacks. They told us that 18 will last them years as they rarely use more than one a year.

Some men said that they are not as easy to use as the Little John and some women reported spillage in use the first time. Everyone recommended practicing. 

The TravelJohn is advertised to hold 28 fluid ounces. Two larger-framed pilots told us that if they’ve delayed too long the capacity was not adequate. 


A number of women told us that they feel that both products are inadequate in the tight confines of a small airplane. They pointed us to a number of female urinal products, all of which could be purchased on Amazon.com: EllaPee Women’s Urinal ($11.65—no reservoir included, but could be used with the Little John or TravelJohn); the 68-ounce Unisex Potty Urinal ($16.99, similar to the Little John with a flexible hose between the urinal and reservoir); and Tinkle Belle ($28, with case but no reservoir). 


Overall, we lean toward the TravelJohn but like the capacity of the Little John. We think that the makers of the Little John need to fix the cap sealing issue. 

In our opinion, making the decision to keep a portable urinal in the airplane will be fervently appreciated by each and every user. Despite the “eeehhh” factor of the subject matter, we recommend practicing before you have to use it in anger.