Oilfield Pumper Etiquette: Testing one’s manhood with the Fairbanks 503 “slave master”

Okay so, when my dad starts a project, there is no lunch, no water, no anything until we have finished the job. I feel certain it is today, why I am always the last pumper in the field – and the dirtiest.

So anyway, it was a long time ago – a hot summer in Oklahoma and we had been suffering for some time without rain. I was about 16-years-old (I’m 54 now) and my dad woke me early on a Saturday morning. We were building fence.

On this day, we were digging post holes with a two-man auger he had proudly purchased at an estate sale. You know the kind; a man and a woman in this case, on each side of it holding it steady as it grinds its way into the ground.

So the digging began and the work was grueling. The Oklahoma red dirt was packed hard – I mean land a C-5 cargo jet on it hard or tear up a Tri Cone Drill Bit hard. You get the picture.

Anyway through the day, the holes were getting dug. However, I had noticed that when my dad stopped that auger he had to push a wrench that had a rubber handle on it onto the spark plug. I really hadn’t noticed it much up to about 4 p.m. I was hot, I was thinking about going out that night with my boyfriend Roger and I didn’t much care about how he had rigged that damned auger to stop.

And then it happened…

We had started on another hole – the last one for the day. The dirt seemed even harder and it just felt like that auger was spinning around, bouncing on concrete. All of a sudden, it hit a rock and bounced out of the hole.

It was still grinding full speed (the speed lever was also broken) and it started augering up my father’s leg. It was like a dragon chewing him up. I had to do something! I had to act! I just knew it was going to auger my father in half if I didn’t!

And so I did it. I just grabbed a hold of that spark plug with my whole hand. The current coursed through my hand and up to my shoulder. But that bit of insanity worked and the auger died.

I was bending over holding my arm and I looked up at my father, who was bleeding but not profusely. His plants were down around his ankles. He was wearing boxers with pink flamingos on a grey background. I’m sorry but I just can’t unsee that.

He pulled his pants up and laughed. I said, ‘Oh, you thought that was funny huh?”

He said, “You should have seen the look on your face when you grabbed that spark plug.”

I said, “Yeah, nice stop-switch dad. What’s wrong with it?”

He said, “I don’t know. It’s just broke.”

This week, in that wondermous blogosphere on Greasebook.com, read and enjoy the “It’s Broke” edition – Great stories about people in the oilfield who found themselves with equipment they couldn’t diagnose, yet found work-arounds to keep it running.

Now, when Greasebook reached out to me and asked me write some material for pumper and oilfield executives, they thought it’d be a wonderful idea to work and write from the “Lease Pumper’s Handbook” – expanding on the topics contained within the text and throwing in color and insight where necessary.

The handbook is a guide put together by the Oklahoma Marginal Well Commission offering great guidance on all things pumper.

I mean, this thing even includes some of the things that are never really talked about, but are sort of pumper etiquette items that, if not handled properly can get you blackballed by other pumpers. It’s a must read.

So for you pumpers who find yourselves wondering why your gas well made zero even though your plunger seemed to be coming up all night, give it a read. It will help you with some possible causes. It includes everything from pencils to pumping units in there.

Through the next several blogs, I will be dragging some fun subjects out of that Lease Pumper’s Handbook and sharing some zany and I hope enjoyable stories with you that almost certainly would not have happened if we would have had the handbook.

Snap

So, this first story is about one of my pumping units with a Fairbanks 503 engine on it.

While there is a ton of great information in the Lease Pumper’s Handbook, this is one of the painful lessons I had to learn without a handbook. There are no individual instructions anywhere on how to run pumping unit engines. They are like women, I am told – all pretty temperamental if you don’t take some time with them.

The Fairbanks 503 is an ancient, slave master. It can be a terribly hearty engine though, that can take a lot of abuse and still run. And that is why it is still in the field today. But if you let it go down, even for one minute, you will live to rue the day.

Me in front of an old, Fairbanks 503 "slave master" ;-)
Me in front of an old, Fairbanks 503 “slave master” 😉

On this particular engine, the clutch to engage the pumping unit, once you have the engine good and going, is a round wheel about 12 or so inches in diameter. You have to grab that wheel and push the clutch plate straight forward away from your chest to engage this clutch. It can really test your manhood, especially when you’re a woman.

Most other clutches, such as on the Continental 106s and 96s as well as the Ajax, the clutch handle is just that; a long handle that sticks up where you can grab it and apply some leverage to the situation.

On this particular Fairbanks 503, the clutch was really tight. I mean this thing felt like you were trying to jab two inch pegs in one inch holes. One day, after fighting to start this bad girl for about 30 minutes, I finally got her going again and was pretty tired from physically kick starting that engine. (Did I mention how huge they are?) I walked around to the clutch wheel and gave it a shove. The pumping unit weights started going and all appeared ok, but I knew it wasn’t. I could smell the clutch plate burning.

I’m really tired, right? And so I put all of my upper body strength into this and give it a mighty shove. Nope. Sweat is pouring down my face. I’m starting to lose my religion. I’m getting frustrated. I try again. Still no dice.

So now I’ve worked for 30 minutes getting the stubborn engine started and now it won’t matter if I cannot get this clutch pushed in because I can’t just leave an engine running without running the pumping unit.

Now, I know all the men are thinking, “Geesh, this is why women shouldn’t be in the oil field.”

Well, you aren’t alone. Because that is what my boss said when I called him and politely asked (this was a new well to me) if there was anything special about this clutch that I should maybe know. I won’t tell you how that conversation went.

So I admit, I went a little crazy after I got off the phone with him. I ran around the outside of the entire pumping unit screaming and yelling , shaking my fists to the heavens.

I came back to the spot, looked around to make sure no one had seen my lapse in sanity and focused all my attention on that clutch. I then played around with it for about two more minutes just looking at it and feeling of it gently – you know, getting to know it. And then I saw it.

I realized that it wanted me to snap it in at just the right place where the weights were on their way up. I snapped it right in. It did have a secret to it and I had figured it out.

Fast forward four weeks later. My boss had gone by to place a new rocker arm on the external valve on that engine. He restarted it and stood there on the phone before engaging the unit talking to me. He was pretty satisfied with himself and was going on about how he was pretty muchly all that was man.

He had “only called to let you know what I had done on the pumping unit just so you could mark it in you book.”

I said, “Roger that. Consider it marked.”

A full hour later, he called me. He was out of breath and sounding pretty disgusted.

“Is there something you can tell me about this clutch?”, he asked.

I smiled to myself. “Nope, you’ll just have to man up.”

He never did get that clutch in. I had to go back and put it in for him.

Aka, Wench with a Wrench

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