Richard H. Graham describes how pilots used to pee while on an SR-71 Blackbird

The world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, was flown by a select group of pilots known as SR-71 pilots. A rigorous application process that included flying, psychological, and physical tests was required to become an SR-71 pilot. Only the very best were selected to pilot the SR-71, or Blackbird. Extreme circumstances faced by SR-71 pilots included donning a full-pressure suit, flying at altitudes above 80,000 feet, and exceeding Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound). During the Cold War era, SR-71 pilots also took part in some of the most classified and dangerous reconnaissance missions.

However, “How did you guys use the toilet?” was the most often asked question about the pressure suit, a protective suit worn by high-altitude pilots who may fly at altitudes where the air pressure is too low for an unprotected person to survive, even breathing pure oxygen at positive pressure. According to this article, they used to use a contraption resembling a condom called the Urinary Collection Device (UCD) to do this. The pilot and RSO (Reconnaissance Systems Officer) were scheduled by PSD (Physiological Support Division) to have their pressure suits and UCD fitted during training.

After each flight, crews disposed of their pressure suit underwear in a receptacle, and PSD then cleaned and reorganized the crew members’ lockers. Each Habu (the nickname of the SR-71 aircraft, aka Blackbird, originated from the local people of Okinawa who thought the plane resembled the pit viper known as “Habu”, here also referring to the pilots of the plane) was responsible for keeping up his own UCD. Each locker had two or three sets of our cotton long-john tops, bottoms, underwear, socks, and shoes. There was no theft, so the lockers were never shut in between flights.

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A thick, hefty rubber condom that was sufficiently hard to keep its shape served as the UCD’s shell. It featured a giant outer condom that was formed like an airport windsock, and as it traveled deeper within, a thin-sheathed rubber condom tapered down. Since pilots didn’t all have the same size, the PSD experts showed them how to adjust the UCD to match each of their unique penises using scissors.

airport windsock

The trick was to trim the windsock-tapered condom to the right diameter for the penis so that it fits snugly but comfortably. The Velcro on the hard outer rubber condom was fastened using Velcro from your underpants. The pressure suit tubing was connected to an exit tube coming from the far end of the UCD. To offer an additional degree of protection against the UCD connection coming undone during the flight, black electrical tape was added to the snap-on connection.

All of the UCD connections and tubing were enclosed in the pressure suit, making them unreachable during flight. The UCD escape tube was connected to a small rubber hose inside the pressure suit before running down the left leg and connecting to an open/closed valve. The open/closed valve, which was hidden in a zipper pocket near the left knee, was the only thing that could be accessed from outside the pressure suit. A second tube came out of the valve and was directed to the left leg’s lower zipper pocket. The pocket contained a plastic container with a very absorbent sponge to collect and hold pee.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for error! You have to slightly inflate the suit in order to use the UCD effectively. Positive pressure flowed from within the suit to the outside when you opened and locked the open/closed valve. If you experienced a chilling draft crossing your penis when the valve was open, you had some faith that it would operate as intended. You were notified by the draft that everything was at least planned to go smoothly. What about solid waste instead? All they had to do was restrain any cravings, despite there being sporadic incidences.

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Richard H. Graham, a former SR-71 pilot who described these details, logged 765 hours in the Blackbird but never had to use the UCD and only occasionally sipped water while flying. But by passing two kidney stones four years apart, he believes he was ultimately punished for that later in life.