As the Wrench Turns - My First Ah Sh*t Moment, Lessons Learned from John Goglia

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.


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John, let me set the stage: Lead Mechanic, Line Maintenance, midnight shift,wintertime, working several A/C at once. Crew of 10 guys.

I had made all the assignments to the mechanics for the nights work. I assigned myself a relatively easy, straightforward job; changing a main landing gear uplock switch on an F100.

I dropped the R/H gear door to gain access and since it was dark,jammed my large Maglight into a position near the front spar and focused the beam on the switch I'd be removing and replacing. Plenty of light and fresh batteries would provide all the visibility I needed to do the job. So far so good.

But, and there's always a but. A mechanic on my crew approached me to help him with another airplane on the next gate. It had a pressurization problem and required 2 mechanics. By this time I had removed the uplock switch, retrieved a new one and was ready to install it. I turned my job over to a mechanic who had just been freed up, left my Maglight in place for him to use and went to help on the other aircraft. We finished up the nights work and went home.

Fast forward to the following night. One of the first things I did after clocking in was to grab my tools and gear, including my flashlight(a mechanic on nightshift feels naked without it)to prepare for the night. "Ah Sh*t...where's my flashlight?" "Oh yeah, I left it with the other mechanic last night so he'd have enough light to finish up the job." I approached him and asked where my light was? His response? "What light".

I panicked at the thought of a large 4 cell Mag-light being left in the landing gear well and flying off. We had recently witnessed one of our jets making a gear up landing at our station due to a wheel chock being left in the wheel well...I imagined this was my fate as well.Not a good feeling.

I tracked the A/C down, it was overnighting in another city. I called one of the mechanics at that station and asked him to open the gear door and look for my Maglight. A funny moment...he actually asked what color it was, I said it was black but if he found one of a different color, it wasn't mine and to just send the black one back to me. That airplane had made several flights that day and it's a wonder something bad didn't happen.Tragedy averted. I still have that 37,000 foot Maglight.

Lesson learned: First off since the second mechanic working the job didn't put the flashlight in the gear well in the first place he wouldn't think to remove it. Not his fault or responsibility. I had put it there and should have removed it then or made the other mechanic aware of it. This was a classic example of distraction. I got lucky and so did the passengers flying on that airplane.

If you guys really want to open the flood gates on this theme, invite mechs to submit Skydrol stories.

Hope all's well John!


I have a story or two planned around skydrol

Ok, I have two here, one more of a funny story. However everything looks relatively funny when you look back on these.

The ah-sh*ts - from stuck-open hydraulic fill valves to schrader valves breaking loose, to downing an E-2 aircraft on a flight deck for leaky main strut, and breaking things when they shouldn't be broken, I think the most A-sh*t moments come from not being able to answer questions about why a system/part is not functioning - and being asked by pilots on line (as an enlisted mech), why certain parts are not acting like they should. My first experience with that came when a pilot came out after shutdown (we were going to check on a Rotordome actuator leak after the plane arrived), and asked about why a steering link was stiff. It caught me off-guard and my non-response made me feel really bad - and a sh*t, why didn't I know this. The look said everything - luckily I had sun-tinted lenses on.
I told him I didn't know, but I would find out. I think I was on the line for about 2 months when this happen. I had another similar incident when I downed an aircraft on a flight deck (carrier) for a leaking main strut. A borderline case, but the chief said it was the right call. But it encouraged me to be more studious about what I was making decisions about and spend more time in the books learning the systems. I went on to get 100 percent fully qualified in the airframe systems in 2 years. I volunteered for anything, trying to get as much experience and exposure to all the systems - mainly because of those a-sh*t moments.

The flashlight incident was infamous, related by the other reader. We had so many incidents of this, the Navy instituted a positive tool control program whereby another mech had to inspect your box before and after a job. Several times people would get calls at home in the middle of the night to ask about where their tools were, or who borrowed them. The planes were down, until these could be confirmed.

The second story - of a-sh*t nature - but funny for those military types...I used to catch hops back and forth from Alameda and San Diego, usually waiting for the last ones with no people as the pilots would allow me sit in the jump seat. Sometimes I missed the regular flights and was still able to get in on an admiral's plane or whatever was going out. One day, I did not have my black neckerchief (navy dress uniform),and used a girlfriends black negligee. I ended up in an Admirals plane sitting next to some commanders. Four of us sitting there at one table (I was next to the window). I did everything to not make eye contact..but noticed the two sitting across from me staring at my neckerchief(even though it looked pretty close - it still wouldn't fly), For an hour I waited for the axe to fall - and it never did...
....which reminds me....there was one flight out of North Island we took - with an Army general aboard...I think it was a Martin 202 or 404 aircraft, can't remember...but the aircraft made it out to the check area, was called back, and found that someone left the gear safety pin installed. Wow - that had to be an a-sh*t moment for someone.

I think the moral here - is prepare yourself and cut down on those a-sh*t moments. Take a few moments to think about the extra dimensions in your work and surroundings. Aviation is not very forgiving at times.

Try a L1011 Hydraulic bay with a misting Skydrol leak! Can you say eye burning pain on a 10 foot ladder.

Serious or humorous, you write from the heart. Thank you. gbk/ P.S. As a draftsman we used MEK to clean some of our tools too. I had a constant headache from the fumes but considering your story, I think I got off easy. :)