I thought I’d start off the New Year with a look at one of the strangest projects that I’ve ever had. A co-worker asked me to look into a redesign of the urinal area on the B-52. I jumped at the chance to work on this project. Certainly there would eventually be the opportunity to discuss my findings in a customer meeting in which I would use the ‘U’ word. This is the stuff dreams are made of.
The problem stems from the lack of adequate facilities. The current installation appears to be almost an afterthought when the bomber was being designed in the 1950’s. An area in the back of the crew area next to the bomb bay access door with a makeshift cloth curtain installed for privacy, a urinal device is installed. Obviously no accommodations were ever made for female crew.
The B-52 is a lumbering workhorse for the US Air Force. Manually controlled with 1950’s technology, the aircraft is slow by today’s standards, jarring during flight and vibrates constantly. Military aircraft are designed for mission performance and while crew comfort is a consideration, it’s not at the top of the list. As you can see from this picture, close quarters are the rule rather than the exception.
So when it’s time to ‘go’, a crewmember crawls out of his seat, to the back of the cabin, behind the curtain and stands while the plane lumbers and lurches. Consider that the crewmember is most likely in the middle of a mission when nature calls, aim is out-prioritized by a need to get back to work. A mess ensues.
The walls and flooring installed in the urinal area are steel and aluminum. The corrosive nature of the urine takes on the metallic surfaces. The metal loses. Also consider the bomber flies for months before going in for an overhaul. Maintenance may perform some cleaning, but the damage is done as soon as the overspray starts.
Maintenance costs to repair the area, which includes a good clean up, and replacing the corroded metal, are tremendous, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition to the time spent to clean up the area impacts the downtime keeping the bomber from reentering service.
And so my co-worker engaged my services to look into improving the area, but with a twist: how about we include a facility for women crewmembers? Novel idea! At that time there were about eighteen females who flew the B-52. Not a majority, but certainly enough to warrant a look into making this personal situation better for them.
I had an opportunity to talk to a couple of women crewmembers to get their thoughts on how to improve the urinal situation. I was surprised at their answers. There are female urination devices that exist for outdoor activities and other ‘opportunities’ for that girl on the ‘go’. (I think the names of these things could be better than ‘Go Girl’ or ‘She Wee’, Google them, I’m not kidding.) These airmen used these devices during missions and indicated they were so used to using them that another option wasn’t really necessary.
As far as privacy concerns, they told me that they are on the bomber to do a job and the their male counterparts needed them back as quickly as possible to continue the mission. No jokes, no slams, all of the crew, male and female, performing their work, doing the business of keeping us safe. I’m impressed with the professionalism these women displayed and I learned a thing about personal hygiene in odd environments: There is no time for embarrassment when you have a country to defend.