What's an unusually difficult or rare task at your job?

I was watching “The Hunt for Red October” for the umpteenth time today. There’s a scene where Alec Baldwin gets winched down from a helicopter to a submarine in the middle of the north Atlantic on a windy day. The first officer of the sub has to stand in the conning tower and attempt to hook his line. He’s asked if he’s ever done this before and replies, “Once, on a calm day off Hawaii.”

So this got me thinking about one’s normal duties at work, and the unusual days where you have to do something tricky or uncommon. I’m especially interested in jobs that are perceived as difficult in the first place - say, a neurosurgeon. What’s a hard day for a neurosurgeon vs. a normal day at the office?

Please share your stories of the time you had to do something difficult and unusual at work.

Here’s mine:

I fly airplanes for a living, formerly airline and now charter. When the weather is good the job is mostly straightforward, but then there are the occasional equipment problems. Those have been mostly benign for me. The most unusual thing I’ve had to do as a professional pilot was a “power back” operation, and I’ve done it exactly once.

A power back is moving the airplane backwards using a jet’s thrust reversers, or what’s called “beta” on a turboprop (using the propeller controls to change the pitch such that the thrust is directed forward). Obviously, the sight lines are a problem. But the real trick is that in many aircraft you can’t use the brakes because it would make the plane to tip over and sit on the tail.

So one day when I was an airline guy in a big turboprop we had a plane at a remote gate and there was no tug available. Normally, the tug would be used to push the plane back and we’d start engines and taxi normally. The captain I was paired with said no problem, get us some marshallers to walk the wings and give hand signals and we’ll power it back.

At which point I diplomatically said, “We’re going to f***ing do WHAT?!”

He assured me he’d done it before and all I had to do was monitor the engine instruments and look out the window. And sure enough he did it perfectly. Meanwhile, I sat with my feet well away from the brakes. This was actually a normal procedure for a while at some airlines back in the day, but it’s a mostly lost skill now. Very few people I would have trusted with this, but that captain was excellent.

I work for an internet giant named after a certain river beginning with the letter “A”


Took a float plane to the Dry Tortugas 2 years ago. Very interesting when your ‘runway’ is full of boats. Anyway. He backed the plane into the beach using this technique. Pretty cool.

I work a pretty laid-back and low-stress job - academic administrative work for a university. The only thing that could pass for “unusually difficult or rare” is when I have to make a phone call to some school to help hunt down some obscure course catalog, or I get a file in which all the previous work has been erased and the student has five or six obscure transcripts from the 1980s which all now have to be manually filled in and have course descriptions searched for manually. That process can take 3-5 hours.

I was on a jet once that did a power back. It was a United jet, and I forget what equipment it was but maybe a 737 or 747. (Domestic, trans-con) The airport was overly busy so ground control had us taxi out to a spot near the runway and park and wait. (This was back in the “good old days” when they allowed us cretins to listen to Channel 9. I adored that.) They told another jet to do the same, and they parked immediately in front of us, facing a different direction (so think nearly T-bone).

After some other traffic cleared, control told us to go ahead and get positioned on the runway. Our jet was too big and the other one too close for us to simply turn as we moved forward, so to my surprise the captain backed us up and then moved around the other parked jet. Before that day I had no idea that jets could back up like that. It was extremely cool.

As for myself… I think the challenge here is that things may seem mundane to those of us who do the rare task or we may think they’re too technical to explain. I’ll give mine anyway. I used to do computer support for 911 agencies. I did everything from programming to hardware support and installing and configuring new systems and networks. The latter tasks had to be done when the center was least busy, so typically something like 3am. I got to the point where I could get up at 1 or 2am and do a full system install as quickly as possible to minimize their downtime* with no mistakes. In fact, it was when I was half-asleepily joking/bragging to myself that “hey, I can do this in my sleep” and then realized that I was in fact, doing it in my sleep, that I realized I was no longer learning or being challenged and it was time to move on.

  • They kept working using paper and pen, but hated it with a passion. I don’t blame them. There’s no way I could keep track of 40 police cars or fire units and upwards of 25 incidents simultaneously, using paper.

Former job at a brokerage firm. Something as simple as balancing the orders on our books versus what was open at the exchange should be so easy that my 5 year old nephew could do it.

Instead, with our technology that hadn’t been updated since Bill Clinton was President, it required endless steps, advanced Excel work, and a ton of tedious nonsense. I hated those reports.

Communicating with military allies who do not speak English and whose radios do not support Type 1 encryption. Really makes the simplest tasks seem impossible.

I’m a computer geek for an electric company. 99.99% of my time is spent at a desk. The other part of my time is spent walking through a power plant or substation hoping that I don’t accidentally touch anything that will kill me. So far, so good.

Since you started off talking about submarines, you got me thinking about my former career as a submariner.

All of my most interesting stories on the job date back to then. Several come to mind. One of the most unusual was when we were running a drill one afternoon at sea in which the reactor was intentionally shut down (i.e. “scrammed”) to test our ability to quickly recover. However, in the course of the recovery, there was a problem that led to another problem to another (what we used to call a cascading casualty). We ended up on the emergency battery for an extended period of time, which started getting depleted after a while, so we proceeded to periscope depth to start the emergency diesel generator, which wouldn’t start due to heavy seas over the air induction mast. We finally got it started, at which point it caught on fire. :eek: (It was small, and quickly extinguished). Ultimately we ended up dead in the water, bobbing on the surface, with the diesel running (thankfully), while we worked on repairing all the damage resulting from this drill. :wink:

With respect to the officer in The Hunt for Red October, you’ll recall that the officer had a grounding rod for the helicopter. This is because a helo can build up dangerous amounts of static electricity. Between that and inherent danger involved in transferring personnel from a submarine to a helo, the USN had essentially eliminated helo transfers back when I was in (the 1990s), simply because too many people were getting seriously injured or killed during helo transfers. Whenever we had to transfer personnel from shore, we’d get close to a port, then have a tugboat or pilot boat meet us for the transfer. It was slower, but much safer.

BTW, we don’t have “first officers” in the U.S. Navy. The second-in-command is the “Executive Officer (XO).” We also don’t call the structure on top of a submarine a “conning tower” any more. It is referred to as the “sail.”

Unusually difficult and rare? Enjoying my time there with those people.

When I used to catch birds in mist-nets for surveys, catching a bat was a major pain in the ass.

You wanted to put the nets up as soon as possible after first light, because that’s when the birds are most active. But you ran the risk of catching a late-flying bat. Now birds may nip you or try to claw you, but except for hawks or owls won’t do much damage. But a bats teeth are sharp and can pierce the skin. And you have to take them out of a net in completely different way than birds. It’s very difficult to extract them and avoid getting bitten if you’re not practiced at it. Then there’s the risk of rabies. While I’ve been vaccinated against rabies for just that reason, you hate to think about it.

I was a supervisor at a 9-1-1 center in the Caribbean in a jurisdiction that is a major ship registry. There are lots of vessels all over the world operating under this jurisdiction’s flag. Though rare, a vessel so flagged might call our 9-1-1 center to report an emergency and request assistance.

And so it was that I got a call reporting a cargo vessel operating under our flag on fire in the Mediterranean Sea about 75 miles northwest of Alexandria, Egypt. Now arrange for crew evacuation and emergency firefighting response when you don’t have the local contact phone numbers for Egyptian emergency response and don’t speak the language. Fun times.
Other highlight calls from that role include hostage negotiation, arranging a medical evacuation from a US Coast Guard vessel, severely premature birth, and a motor vehicle collision in which my coworker was the injured party.

Suicide risk, child abuse, and danger to others are the big three in teaching. It’s rarely hard to know what you should do, and it’s not generally technically difficult, but it comes up once a year or so and it can be really wrenching.

I wish our American Airlines pilot had done the “power back” maneuver leaving the gate at SXM Princess Juliana Airport a couple weeks ago as we were heading home. Instead, they did the standard push-back from the gate and somehow the push broke a light on our plane.

The captain first told us the broken light would take “a couple of minutes” to fix. Then we were told that due to regulations the repair had to be done at the gate. Then we were told the gate was now in use. Then we were, etc.

So we were a bit over two hours late taking off and missed our connection. In Philadelphia. With the next flight to Pittsburgh not til the following afternoon.

Yeah, power back is nearly unheard of these days. For good reason. But I share your frustration with the “officiousness” of aviation sometimes. I’ve seen companies / pilots make what I thought were poor decisions because of overly strict interpretations of the rules. But there’s not much incentive for us to do otherwise.

Wow! Some pretty interesting jobs and tasks! Mine will seem as lame as can be but it is unusually difficult and it shouldn’t be difficult.

I am an office manager at a commercial cleaning company. When I mail our employees their paychecks (or stubs if they have direct deposit) I enclose a self-addressed (addressed to my office) stamped envelope so they can mail me the next pay period’s time cards. I also put a sticker on their pay stub that says in large colorful type - Please mail your time cards on (date). It couldn’t get much easier than that. They don’t have to guess what day they need to mail them, they don’t have to find an envelope, they don’t have to buy a stamp and they don’t even have to know the address of the office. Just insert time cards and put the envelope in the mail. Then magically they receive another check in 2 weeks! 80% of the employees are able to complete this task. The other 20% have to be called more than once, nagged and reminded every pay period without fail. I have enclosed with their checks special notes practically begging that they make sure to send in their time cards and I have circled the sticker with a highlighter. Some will tell me that they mailed it on such and such a date which is always a week later than what the sticker says :confused:

I always wonder why they work. Apparently they don’t care if they get don’t get paid. And I’ve tried - if I don’t have your time cards on time, you won’t get paid. Then they call with a sob story how they need their check for rent, etc. So then I have to run an extra payroll. It just turns out to be more work for me.

When a mold cavity or core was damaged and had a nick to be welded.
The tungsten inert gas electrode had to sharpened to the proper angle so you could control the arc. You needed to start the arc off the damaged area because if you were too close to the sharp edges, the arc will melt the needed crisp edge.
After positioning the electrode near the weld zone, you must bring in the .025” filler rod. Not too close because the arc will melt the rod before it gets to the puddle. I have heard it described as being held as an assassins’ knife, ready to plunge it in at the exact moment needed.
Ok, now depress the foot pedal at the right rate to the right position that gives you the arc you need, move the torch over and stab the filler rod in.
Do everything right and you are a hero, wrong, and you are a zero.

Keeping 25 preschoolers engaged for 30 minutes.

Having to brief the client in their office, five minutes before they leave for a major meeting, as to why what they really, really want to do at the meeting is a really, really bad idea.

I think it was the best 5 minutes of advocacy in my career, witnessed only by the exec. assistant.

Remember the insanity during the worst part of the financial crisis with money market mutual funds breaking the buck?

In a tax sheltered account, a tax free investment such as municipal bonds is never recommended. During that insanity (and supposedly Oprah running her mouth and scaring people), we had people demanding that all idle cash in retirement accounts be dumped in tax free municipal money market funds.

An absolute pain in the ass on my end as a broker with a ton of paperwork, then it has to go up to at least two levels of management for an ok and higher if the $$$ were really high.

Yeah, I’d get home after 8 hours of that and down a full beer before my jacket came off