8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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Pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, but there's a less-visible group of people who are just as essential—air traffic controllers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. MANY OF THEM DON’T WORK AT AIRPORTS.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from airports.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he tells the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. AGE IS A MAJOR FACTOR.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN BIBLE AND THEIR OWN LINGO.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. PILOTS WITH HEAVY ACCENTS FRUSTRATE THEM.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he writes on Reddit.

5. THEY ALTERNATE BETWEEN STRESS AND BOREDOM.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. THEY’RE PROBABLY OVERWORKED.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, describes his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards notes that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO SPOTTINGS DEFINITELY HAPPEN.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. THEIR JOB ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

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Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

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