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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.

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11 Secrets of Matchmakers
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In an age of dating apps and casual hookups, matchmakers may seem like a relic from another era. But although they've been bringing people together since long before we were swiping right, matchmaking as a profession is still alive and well. We spoke to several matchmakers to get a glimpse at how their job really works, from their sixth sense for making matches to how they deal with picky clients.

1. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON THE CLOCK.

Whether they’re shopping for groceries, waiting in a doctor’s office, or traveling on vacation, matchmakers always have their eyes peeled for ideal partners for their clients. “Being a matchmaker is not a 9 to 5 job,” matchmaker and dating coach Bonnie Winston tells Mental Floss. “24 hours, seven days a week is more like it. My employees go home, but I never close!”

Winston, who often works on weekends and evenings, also gives her clients dating advice before, during, and after dates. “It is not unusual that clients call me with inquiries about what they should wear before certain dates,” she says. “Or, I’ll get calls in whispered hush tones—secretly from bathrooms in dining establishments—to ask me questions on etiquette, or if they can hook up with their date because they have great chemistry,” Winston says.

2. THEY HAVE A SIXTH SENSE.

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Romance is mysterious—no one can predict whether two strangers will meet and fall in love. But successful matchmakers possess a high level of emotional intelligence and intuition that guides them in their work. Winston, who made her first successful match when she was 16 years old, says she just has a natural sense of which people would be good together. “Matchmaking isn’t something that can be bought or taught,” she says. “I will meet someone and just know when they are a good match for one of my clients.”

3. THEY’RE PART THERAPIST/LIFE COACH.

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Matchmakers meet with clients, interview potential matches, dispense dating advice, and attend networking events. But some also perform background checks, administer personality testing, and build psychological profiles of their clients. The best combine a therapist’s listening skills and objective perspective with a life coach’s ability to motivate. Matchmakers may also interview their clients to determine why past relationships have failed, and help them formulate a strategy to achieve their relationship goals.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT NETWORKING.

The most successful matchmakers love people. Meeting people, listening and talking to them, and ultimately pairing them together excites and inspires them. In a Reddit AMA, three matchmakers at Three Day Rule explained that successful matchmakers are extroverts, and highly confident when approaching new people. “You really have to be able to walk up to anyone. We go up to people on the street all the time and say ‘Hey, are you single?’ so you have to be ok embarrassing yourself a bit,” they write.

Besides speaking with people they encounter in daily life, matchmakers may also rely on their networks of family and friends. “My mother is one of eight siblings and I have literally dozens of cousins who are well aware that there is a ‘yenta’ in the family. I tap into those resources, too!” Winston says.

5. THEY WISH PEOPLE WOULD BE WARY OF PHONY MATCHMAKERS.

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Although some reputable organizations offer courses and certifications in matchmaking, matchmakers don’t need any formal training to do their job. “Some [of these organizations] are legit, but others are just about the revenue,” says Jamie Rose, the founder and CEO of Rose Matchmaking. Similarly, some matchmaking companies are more about maximizing profit than helping people find love. Scammers who start these matchmaking businesses take advantage of desperate, lonely people looking for love.

So how to tell which businesses are legitimate? Watch for these red flags: matchmakers who won’t meet you in person, companies that have recently changed their name (perhaps to evade detection or create distance from angry former clients), sites that don’t have testimonials (or where the testimonials seem fake), and companies that have many negative user reviews.

6. OVERLY PICKY PEOPLE FRUSTRATE THEM.

Matchmakers get frustrated when clients have unrealistic expectations about love. “There is no such thing as a perfect match, and some people come in thinking that there may be,” Rose explains. Clients may also have emotional blocks that get in the way of finding love. “Some people say they want to get married but they don’t really want to,” Winston says. “They turn down every potential date for a ridiculous amount of petty and inconsequential reasons.”

Jennifer Hayes, the Director of Operations for South Carolina Matchmakers, adds that because bad relationships tend to harden people, matchmakers must encourage clients to keep their hearts and minds open to love. “One of the biggest hurdles we have as a matchmakers is encouraging clients to stay open to the possibilities of finding love,” she tells Mental Floss.

7. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BE BLUNT.

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When a date goes poorly, matchmakers must walk a fine line between being honest and being tactful. “My least favorite part would be telling one client that another client wasn’t interested in them,” Rose says. Although most people don’t enjoy getting rejected and hearing about their off-putting habits, it’s essential that matchmakers be blunt with their clients. By speaking the truth in a kind yet firm way, matchmakers can build a trusting, productive relationship with their clients.

8. DATING APPS CAN MAKE THEIR JOB HARDER …

Dating apps give people a huge number of potential matches at their fingertips, but most apps don't vet matches—and good results are not guaranteed. “[Dating apps] make things so impersonal,” Winston says. “[Users] are deleting really good people forever so easily in seconds with their fingertips. And scratching their heads [about] why they can’t meet anyone.”

In addition, many dating apps are free, while matchmakers charge for their services. Matchmakers say that free apps propagate the view that finding love shouldn't cost anything, and thus threaten matchmakers’ livelihood.

9. … BUT APPS CAN ALSO DRIVE CLIENTS TO THEM.

An older man and a woman looking bored and each on their phones
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While apps may be many people’s initial foray into the dating world, a disappointing experience can lead unsuccessful daters to a matchmaker. “Honestly I think [dating apps] impact [our industry] positively,” Rose says. “People who try those apps or sites see that they are about quantity not quality, and then they research better options and find me.” Winston adds that matchmakers slow down the online dating process. “People who come to me are sick of swiping, scrolling, sexting and texting, getting poked, and being ghosted. They are burnt out,” she says. “I bring back old-fashioned courtship and romance.”

Matchmakers also lend a human element that’s often lacking in online dating. "We know as matchmakers that setting people up requires knowing them to some extent, and knowing people requires time. Unlike online apps we get to know our clients and build relationships with them so we can effectively match them," Hayes says.

10. THEY MAKE CLIENTS LOOK THEIR BEST.

Visuals and first impressions play a huge role in dating, and good matchmakers help their clients improve their image. “You’d be surprised how many people come to me with terrible selfies to find love!” Winston exclaims. Because she owned a fashion photography agency, Winston stays connected to top photographers and hair and make-up artists, and she provides her clients with professional photo shoots. “I want my clients look their best while showing their authentic selves,” she says.

11. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE FIND TRUE LOVE.

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When matchmakers succeed in bringing two people together, they’re ecstatic. “I am joyful when my clients find joy in love. Especially when they immediately 'click'—I feel like I hit it out of the ballpark ... a homerun!” Winston says.

Rose adds that she enjoys changing people’s minds about each other. “I like when two people originally say no to one another, but you remind them of why they came to you. When that match works out you feel really good about it."

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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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 4400 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 RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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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. THEY TEST 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 TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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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 SPEED.

Cans of paint are arranged on the floor
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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 grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, 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.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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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 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 RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“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. 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. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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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 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.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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