Coming to the Defense of the Mechanically Challenged

March 21, 2011
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Mike Murphy

What better place than the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s (MCAA) Annual Convention in Maui to discover that those less fortunately skilled in the finer art of mechanical aptitude (such as myself) can still serve a useful purpose in life. More precisely, the revelation actually occurred on the return trip.

Though being someone with 13 years of manufacturing experience under his belt, I have upon occasion been referred to as somewhat mechanically challenged. Unfortunately, I recently found that to be quite true. And worse yet, I am not a quick learner.

Yes, though somewhere across North America there is certainly at least one old 1994 Lennox condensing unit still running with the imprint of my own hand, one would certainly have to wonder how that is vaguely possible.

I came to grips with this newfound shocking reality aboard a recent Continental Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Cleveland. My undoing came in the form of a stubborn lavatory door.

I pushed with all my might but the door would not open. Though the green sign displayed the word “Vacant,” this tiny room was obviously occupied. Not wishing to further disturb the occupant, I stood patiently waiting for this person to finish with his/her business appointment. A moment later a nice attendant holding a pot of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other demonstrated the proper way to open the door of the tiny unoccupied space.

Initially, a great feeling of embarrassment washed over me, realizing that if I had accurately followed the signs on the two-panel door I might have had different results. (The embarrassment soon dissipated as I determined there is an argument to be made for a poor design by the airline.)

The sign on the left panel read “Push Here.” How was I to know that pushing instead on the right panel on the sign “No Fumar” would prove to be totally fruitless? I may not be at the top of my game with the Spanish language, but one might reasonably think that an ample push anywhere near the No Smoking sign would have yielded better results. It’s only one tiny, little, two-panel folding door - I didn’t know there was some special spot you had to push, like a secret button disguised in a library wall, before you can gain entry to the hidden toilet!

However, being a mature adult, and in consideration of the kind attendant who works for an airline with an obviously flawed toilet door design, rather than call attention to the company’s problem, I simply walked into the toilet without saying a word, with my head held high.


Being that I was on the second of two five-hour legs of a long journey, I easily dismissed my error as being because of too little coffee at too early a time in the morning. However, a few hours later, after too much coffee, when I made a return trip to the secret passageway, my greatest fear was realized: I really might be mechanically challenged.

Again, I pushed the No Fumar sign (right panel) to gain entry with no success. However, this time I immediately glanced to my left, then to my right - the kind attendant was no where near - my faux pas deux was still safe. With a knowing smile I firmly pushed the door’s left panel. Finally, success!

The memory of what occurred upon opening the door for the second time that day will stay with me for many years; my sincere apologies to the fine gentleman who was standing behind the tiny folding door.


Though challenged I may be with regard to mechanical appliances, fixtures, doors, etc., I think that I possess some limited degree of creativity - after all, I was once on an HVAC design team.

On behalf of the MCAA, which was so kind to invite me to its annual meeting, I would like to pass this simple safety recommendation on to aircraft designers every where: Please consider installing a sensor on aircraft lavatory doors which will not allow the inside light to come on until the door has been completely and properly latched. The mechanically challenged of the world will find entry much less surprising, and appreciate the simplicity of your design. And, obviously, no one in their right mind should attempt to do anything in a dark, tiny aircraft lavatory, in a vehicle moving through turbulence at approximately 500 mph. It’s a safety issue. Let’s go with that.

Publication date: 03/21/2011
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