Let’s face it, Oprah and her fans may have their aha moments, but I know that all mechanics have their ah sh*t moments. For me, the one I remember as clear as yesterday was my first and probably most physically painful.
I was a 19 year old A&P for United at JFK performing checks on DC-6, DC-7, and an occasional Convair 340/440. I had just started at United and was assigned the usual beginner tasks. Replacing oil filters, broken exhaust parts, leaking gaskets on rocker box covers, replacing spark plugs and cleaning the leads; the usual newbie grunt jobs.
It was a warm spring evening, around the beginning of May 1964. Yes, I still remember the details well. I was new, young and eager to get to work. I arrived early, got my tools and went to the ready room for my assignment. The crew chiefs – senior mechanics, all of them – gave out the assignments. On this day, I was assigned to replace all the spark plugs in a R2800 engine, a good ole fashioned Pratt & Whitney piston pounder.
As everyone who’s ever worked on a piston engine knows, part of the task of replacing spark plugs is cleaning the leads. But maybe everyone doesn’t know that back in the day, those leads were cleaned with MEK. MEK is a highly flammable and toxic solvent better known as methyl ethyl ketone. Today use of MEK is very restricted but back then we had drums of it in the hangar.
Being my first time changing spark plugs, my crew chief showed me what to do. First, he told me to fill about a quart of MEK from a drum into a metal pail and meet him at the engine I was assigned. There, he showed me how to soak a rag in the MEK and wipe the spark plug leads removing any residue from the leads. Then he left me alone to change the spark plugs.
I started with the easiest to reach spark plugs first, ultimately ending up on a creeper under the engine replacing the plugs on the lowest cylinders. I was getting the hang of this: remove and replace all the plugs and then go back and clean all the leads. To keep track of the MEK-soaked rag, I placed it on my stomach. Well, maybe lower than my stomach. In any event, about a minute later, I realized that MEK and skin did not mix, especially against sensitive skin.
Muttering “ah sh*t”, my creeper became my rocket out from under the engine, as I shot out and raced to the locker room to wash off burning solvent from my most delicate parts. As a 19 year old, very important parts at that. Not only was my skin burning up, so was my pride as I tried to cover up my mistake from my co-workers. I can’t say I was too successful and they had a good laugh at my expense.
Moral of the story: There’s a reason the government requires MDS sheets for dangerous chemicals. And a reason for everyone to read them carefully.