8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

iStock
iStock

As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

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 an airport.

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 told 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 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 can 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 wrote 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, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted 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 sightings 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. RObots won't be replacing them.

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.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

11 Secrets of Storm Chasers

Drew Angerer, Getty Images
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Every year, people around the world board up windows, stock up on essential supplies, and flee their own homes in anticipation of severe weather events. But for storm chasers, tumultuous weather is an invitation to move toward the danger. Some endure precarious conditions during hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storms in order to take readings that might later prove useful to meteorologists. Others are simply attracted to the beauty of the storms, capturing nature’s violent expressions in what could be considered an extreme form of landscape photography.

There's no shortage of opportunities for storm chasers. The U.S. each year sees an average of 1253 tornadoes—a massive column of spinning air borne out of thunderstorms and creating winds up to 250 miles per hour. Hurricanes are fueled by heat from oceans and threaten coastal regions with heavy rain and wind. Though it doesn’t have quite the same reputation, even a simple, raging thunderstorm can produce enough hail and high winds to cause chaos. Each is dangerous, devastating—and, in the eyes of storm chasers, beautiful.

To better understand what motivates these individuals to seek out cataclysmic events, Mental Floss spoke to three extreme weather specialists. Here’s what they had to say about airborne houses, armored trucks, and why you won’t usually see any of them wearing a helmet.

1. For storm chasers, a hurricane can feel like an acid trip.

A satellite image of Hurricane Irene in the Caribbean Sea in August 2011 is pictured
Hurricane Irene is shown over the Caribbean Sea in a satellite image from August 2011.
NOAA via Getty Images

With just 13 hurricanes hitting the continental U.S. since 2010, chasing hurricanes requires a passport and a willingness to spend days making connecting flights to international destinations. As a result, hurricane hunters are a small subgroup of the storm chaser demographic. Why do they do it? For Josh Morgerman, a hurricane chaser based in Southern California and star of the Science Channel’s upcoming Hurricane Man, being exposed to hurricanes on Long Island in his youth created an association between a severe storm and excitement. “My whole life is hunting that feeling again and again,” he tells Mental Floss. While he still pursues that rush, Morgerman's chief objective is to measure air pressure and log observational data that can assist meteorologists in analyzing storms. (Chasers can also measure factors like humidity, wind speed, and temperature.)

Unlike tornadoes, which have a very clear visual identity as they spin in a cone shape over land, hurricanes just look like a fierce concentration of weather. That combination of heavy rain, wind, and flying debris can be hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. As fierce weather rages in the area known as the eyewall, the eye, or center, inside is peaceful. Morgerman says that jarring contrast is a little like an acid trip. “In a severe hurricane [the eyewall] is quite incredible,” he says. “Some sound like a train or like wolves howling. Hurricane Michael, the building I was in was shaking. The windows were breaking. With storms like that, you can’t see anything. Everything just turns white. You just see flying wreckage. It’s an unbelievable spectacle to behold." In the eye, though, "It gets calm. The sky is blue ... There’s something very acid-trippy about that.”

2. The movie Twister influenced a lot of storm chasers.

A publicity photo from the 1996 film 'Twister' depicts actor Bill Paxton looking at a tornado
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1996’s Twister, Bill Paxton plays a tornado chaser who braves a series of severe weather events. For many chasers, the movie was a milestone, prompting a lot of people to get into the field themselves. “It’s the reason I got into it,” says tornado chaser Greg Johnson, who now collects footage to sell to news outlets. “There was this romantic notion of storm chasing. There are a lot of things the movie got right."

There was one exception. "One thing it didn’t get right is the human toll. The damage associated with these storms. The movie underplayed the destruction and death. In real life scenarios, it’s far worse than anything they show in the movie.” A chaser’s first priority, he says, is to stop and help anyone who might need assistance.

3. Storm chasers don’t spend much time actually inside the storms.

Support scientist Tim Marshall stands outside of a vehicle to observe a supercell thunderstorm in Lamb County, Texas in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

The life of any storm chaser is supposed to be thrilling, and it is—for a few minutes or hours at a time. Most chasers spent the majority of their careers traveling toward a storm, either by driving toward it or, in Morgerman’s case, flying. He might be in a hurricane for hours; a tornado might touch down for just a few minutes. Johnson also says he spends much of his time traveling. “When you see videos on YouTube of incredible tornado events, recognize what you’re seeing is the 1 percent of the time,” Johnson tells Mental Floss. “You’re not seeing countless hours at truck stops sleeping on the hood of a truck doing nothing.”

4. The real danger for storm chasers isn’t the weather. It’s the traffic.

Traffic is redirected during a tornado in Linwood, Kansas in May 2019
Kyle Rivas, Getty Images

Severe weather can cause high winds and flooding, but it’s not always nature that winds up being physically threatening, especially because chasers spend so much of their time traveling. (In fact, there’s been only one fatal incident as a direct result of a tornado, when chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and colleague Carl Young were trapped in their vehicle and picked up by 200 mile-per-hour winds during the El Reno tornado in 2013. All three died.)

According to Montana-based storm chaser and National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Mottice, experienced chasers know to fear traffic more than the weather. “In a more highly populated area, you have to worry about traffic congestion,” he says. “A storm might be coming down through Oklahoma and you might be out of danger initially. But as the storm is getting closer, people are worrying and start panicking. They’ll pull under overpasses and get stuck on the road with a tornado coming at them.”

Johnson agrees, adding that injury from storms can often take a back seat to traffic accidents. “The thing that keeps me up at night is the driving, not the tornado,” he says. “The tornado will generally go from point A to point B along a defined path. It’s very well-behaved. The quickest way is a straight line. It’s very visual. You can see where it is and you can avoid it. Driving is a completely different story. Put enough miles on and you’re bound to see a bad accident.”

5. Storm chasers drive armored vehicles.

A reinforced vehicle is pictured near a tornado
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Driving in pursuit of a tornado requires a little more than simple guts and a willingness to get close to a massively powerful weather event. Chasers need their version of a Batmobile. According to Johnson, professionals usually opt for an armored truck to help insulate them from the destructive power of the storm. “We’re not just driving around in a pick-up truck,” he says. “I have a roll cage to prevent it from being crushed. It’s designed to go off-road. It’s heavier than a normal truck. The steel roll cage adds weight. There’s exterior coating to prevent punctures in the vehicle.”

While the roll cage is heavy, the goal isn’t to make the vehicle heavier so it's harder for a tornado to pick up. “At the end of the day, if you’re caught in a tornado capable of throwing the vehicle, a weight difference of 500 or 800 pounds won’t matter. Tornados can pick up combiners. Those things do happen. I’d rather the truck be lighter and easier on gas.”

6. Storm chasers have seen flying houses.

A weathervane is mounted on the roof of a house
Lobro78/iStock via Getty Images

Storm chasers don’t want to drive directly into a tornado or other severe weather event. They just want to get close enough to obtain readings or to take photographs. Johnson tries to get within 200 or 300 yards to snap photos, which is still close enough to see how intense wind speeds can be. “I’ve seen a house flying through the air,” he says. “I saw a truck flying across the road 50 yards in front of me.”

7. Storm chaser equipment can take a beating.

Jan Dutton of WeatherBug.com tracks Hurricane Isabel in Ocean City, Maryland in September 2003
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Most chasers hit the road with doppler radar, laptops, cameras, and other equipment to help them analyze data and capture images. If you’ve wondered how they can do that without putting themselves at risk, the answer is simple. For still photography, Mottice puts the camera on a tripod outside while he remains in the truck. That keeps him out of danger—but his equipment is another story. "I have my camera and gear on a tripod. I’m in the vehicle taking remote pictures. The hail can hit the camera. Wind is an issue.” Some chasers bring back-up equipment in case their gear gets pummeled.

8. Storm chasers know they should wear helmets. (But they usually don’t.)

A storm warning sign is pictured
arcady_31/iStock via Getty Images

With flying wreckage cutting through the air, it would stand to reason storm chasers should equip themselves with helmets. Few do, however. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t wear a helmet,” Morgerman says. “Fans have been pushing me to wear one for years … the whole [television] crew is wearing helmets. I don’t want anything to encumber the experience.”

9. Storm chasers can suffer physical effects.

Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a photo taken by the International Space Station in September 2008
Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a satellite image taken by the International Space Station in September 2008.
NASA via Getty Images

An experienced chaser knows how to plan routes that keep them safely away from tornadoes. For hurricanes, they scope out buildings able to withstand the force of the storm. All that planning, however, doesn’t mean they always walk away unscathed. Morgerman says the violent winds of a hurricane’s eyewall can leave enduring effects. “The intense gustiness can cause rapid pressure changes that can really hurt your ears,” he says.

10. Storm chasers know that thunderstorms can be incredibly destructive.

A storm chaser drives a car with a smashed windshield
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Most people assume hurricanes and tornadoes represent the pinnacle of danger when it comes to storm-chasing. But according to Mottice, a severe thunderstorm can match or exceed them in destructive power. “Some people think a severe thunderstorm warning with 80 mile-per-hour winds is no big deal, that the tornado is the big deal,” he says. “But winds produce more damage than some tornadoes. In Montana, a storm produced 120 mile-per-hour winds. They can do a lot of damage.”

Mottice also tends to be wary of hail during storms. Once, he says, “I didn’t know a storm was blowing up behind the one we were chasing. We got caught in the core of that one. It threw golf ball-sized hail on us. The vehicles on the roads had broken windows.”

11. Storm chasers worry they might be setting a bad example for amateurs.

Hunter Anderson, a meteorology student at St. Cloud University, films a storm near Limon, Colorado in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

In the storm-chasing community, there’s much debate over what separates a professional from an amateur. Generally speaking, professional storm chasers get paid for their work, whether that be compensation for footage or photography. But there's no licensing necessary to chase a storm, and anyone can pursue extreme weather. Morgerman, who has likely been in more hurricanes than anyone alive—he says the Science Channel verified the claim for his television series—believes amateurs who follow chasers on social media might get the wrong idea. “I remember being a 15-year-old weather nerd wanting to have these experiences. I worry I’m setting a bad example. I worry some kids will watch what I do and try to do it but without the experience and knowledge that I have.”

12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
hanusst/iStock via Getty Images

Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 5000 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. Getting strapped in might be the most exciting part of the roller coaster ride.

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. Designers test roller coasters with water-filled dummies.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. Every foot of roller coaster track costs a lot of money.

Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Kirkikis/iStock via Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. Rollercoaster Tycoon brought a lot of people into the business.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. Paint makes a big difference in coaster speed.

A group of tin metal cans with colorful paint
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have gray or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A roller coaster’s skyline is key.

Brian Morrow, former Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. Some coasters arrive as giant model kits.

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. Wooden roller coasters are weather-sensitive.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. The time of day can affect the coaster experience.

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. Roller coaster designs can come from unusual places—like Jay Leno’s chin.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. Roller coaster riders double as performers.

A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
exithamster/iStock via Getty Images

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. The future of coasters is vertical.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” The project is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

This list first ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER