15 Secrets of Caricature Artists

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The word caricature likely conjures up images of street artists on boardwalks or outside museums working up quick, humorous sketches of visitors, to the delight or dismay of their subjects. But the exaggerated illustrations of caricature include a lot more than what you see on the boardwalk—and can be more art than kitsch. We spoke to three experts in the field about the subjects caricature artists love and hate to depict, the best way to make their job harder, what they do if you don't like their drawing, and how they can tell when you really don't want to sit for a portrait.

1. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW IT'S OLDER THAN YOU THINK.

Caricatures by Leonardo da Vinci
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Some of the greatest artists in history practiced caricature as a means to develop their skills. Eileen Owens, curator of "Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to use caricature, in the “grotesque” sketches of unusual faces and heads that populated his notebooks. (His 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was “so delighted when he saw curious heads, whether bearded or hairy, that he would follow anyone who had thus attracted his attention for a whole day.”) Many other well-established Renaissance artists dabbled in caricature on the side, as breaks from their rigorous training: "It was a lot more huge noses, big hair, ways to poke fun at faces. You had to be adept at drawing to know how to exaggerate," Owens says.

The form gained momentum in late-17th century Italy, when Pier Leone Ghezzi “started making funny little drawings that poked fun at well-to-do Romans and tourists,” according to Owens. From there, it spread to Britain, where it became so popular that publishing companies sprung up for the sole purpose of printing caricatures. Publishers also rented out portfolios of caricatures by the day, and hung prints in their windows, to which crowds flocked to see the latest depictions of a buffoonish Napoleon and laughable upper-crust fashions. Owens says, “This was your chance to keep up with the gossip—kind of like People magazine today.”

2. MANY OF THEM ARE SELF-TAUGHT.

A street artist paints a caricature of a girl in Prague
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Lots of caricature artists learn on the job, in part because there's not a ton of specific training available. Illustrator Tom Richmond, who spoofs movies for MAD Magazine (among other gigs), says, "Only a handful of art schools teach cartooning or caricature as a major part of curriculum, so it's hard to find instruction on how to do it. Caricature is such a specialized sort of thing, and diverse; you can’t teach it like you teach people how to draw comics, where [there's] storytelling technique and sequential art tricks and a science behind it, so to speak." Overall, what Richmond and others strive for is to “translate [your] art skill [into caricature], really lean into it—no matter how you practice.”

3. IT CAN BE GREAT TRAINING FOR OTHER ART FORMS.

Richmond says that when he teaches at workshops around the country, he always recommends—no matter what facet of the industry they are interested in—that students try their hand at live drawing, "maybe even volunteer at the local homecoming or draw for free at a daycare center." Having to work quickly with a model in front of you develops a sensitivity to gesture, to how the body leans and how weight is distributed, that's different from the skills you get "shading something for hours," Richmond explains. When you "go back to doing longer pieces, you've got an inner eye that sees things you missed before. It's great discipline for the developing eye."

4. THEY’RE NOT (NECESSARILY) OUT TO MOCK YOU.

Caricatures have been defined as "portrait[s] with the volume turned up." But that doesn't mean they have to be mean-spirited. Richmond says, “Caricature is a depiction of someone in a humorous way, but at its best it has a narrative behind it—you’re pointing out something about their presence, not just making fun of their features.” He explains that he’s not examining someone’s face to find a nose or a chin or dimples to blow out of proportion, but "trying to understand who you are as a person and exaggerate that.”

"I want to make [clients] smile or laugh," says CeCe Holt, who sketches at events and amusement parks, and is also business manager for the non-profit International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). "I never want to make anybody cry."

5. THEY DON’T SWEAT IT WHEN SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE THEIR LIKENESS …

Just because caricaturists strive to capture your essence doesn't mean you're going to like it. People can be in denial about their appearance, with a radically different idea of their weight, for instance, or even whether they have freckles. In Holt’s experience, party guests usually don’t make a fuss about their caricatures, since they haven’t directly paid for them. But when the occasional amusement park patron kicks up a fuss, “I just say I’m sorry and move on to the next person.”

Richmond is similarly blasé, pointing out that when a caricaturist is drawing a quick sketch for $15, the occasional bad portrait is bound to sneak in. "Sometimes they refuse to pay, or come back later and want their money back. Live caricature can be hair-raising, which is why I prefer working with art directors."

6. … BUT SOMETIMES CUSTOMERS RETALIATE.

Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Occasionally, customers do try to turn the tables. Ipecacxink, a caricature artist at a Midwest theme park, writes in a Reddit AMA about a boy she accidentally made very upset with her drawing. "I went to lunch right after I did it. Apparently while I was gone, he came back and drew a circle with spikey hair, glasses, and frowny eyebrows and a note that said, 'How do you like someone making fun of you?!' under it. He then placed it on my chair. It was hilarious. I saved it."

At Sardi's—the Times Square tourist destination known for its wall of caricatures—some of the celebrities depicted have gotten mad enough to take down their pictures, the restaurant's owner told AMNew York. It used to be that the in-house caricaturist (who's paid in meals instead of money) would hand over unfinished versions to the subjects first, to get the seal of approval, before going on to later exaggerate their features. That's stopped, but these days the caricatures have become less humorous, and more like regular portraits—which helps keep the peace between the restaurant and its famous clientele.

7. THEY CAN DO PORTRAITS IN AS LITTLE AS THREE MINUTES.

When she’s sketching guests at amusement parks like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, Holt aims to churn out a black-and-white portrait in three minutes. Working at a wedding reception, where she might add color, six minutes is the max. Much of this has to do with fitting in as many guests as possible—“You have to be fast to get through the crowd or they’ll leave,” she says.

For Holt, the need for speed means she has to “go with her instincts; there isn’t time to second-guess” a depiction. For Richmond, working quickly means caricaturists develop a "sixth sense" for how to capture expressions: “You develop an instinct for people, whether they’re energetic and outgoing, or more quiet." Some of that means honing in on their signature details: "Friends behind will be going, 'It’s the smile! That's exactly how he looks!'" Richmond says.

8. BORING-LOOKING CUSTOMERS ARE THE HARDEST.

Man's hands with pencils drawing a woman's portrait
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The caricaturist's worst fear is the customer who comes in looking exactly like the girl (or guy) next door. "Most people are surprised to hear that what I consider to be the most difficult sort of person to draw is one that is completely average looking," caricaturist GertrudisSlugworth, who works at a theme park, wrote on Reddit."I will get a bland looking individual every once in a while, and when it happens I usually try to focus more on things like clothes, hair, or jewelry to get a decent likeness."

On the other hand, people who are naturally distinctive-looking are often artist favorites. Richmond says he particularly loves drawing Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. “He’s already funny looking, with no features, just glasses, hair, and a big top hat, so you don’t have to work that hard,” he says. “You can just do him standing there with his guitar by his ankles, like he plays it, or exaggerate how he puts his head back, which shows a lot about him as a player.”

9. THEY MAY CHANGE THEIR TECHNIQUE TO SUIT THE WAY YOU LOOK.

When she first started in the business, Holt says she dreaded drawing people who weren’t thin; she was afraid they might take offense at her portraits, although she didn’t intend any. Over the years she’s honed a technique in which she draws faces using a soft line that thickens toward the bottom. The result is “Cute, but they still feel like it looks like them,” Holt says.

GertrudisSlugworth writes that for people with obvious deformities, she may forego exaggerations, even though those are normally the hallmarks of caricature: "I find the best way to handle it is to go more realistic than exaggerated, depending on their attitude. Sometimes if it's an easy fix (e.g missing an eye), the customer will just ask to be drawn as 'normal.' For the most part though, people recognize any obvious deformities they have, and accept your portrayal of them."

10. STREET ARTISTS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE.

Tourists look at caricaturists in Rome
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

Richmond says that artists "sitting in front of a museum while the subject is in front of them have more of an advantage" than he does when it comes to creating an expressive caricature, since he often has to work from photos, which don't show gesture and personality in the same way. "When I'm working from 2D photos, all you’ve got is what the photo shows you, and it's basically superficial. It doesn’t really do it."

Holt agrees: "Working from a picture is different from getting your first instincts from a person." When a freelance client wants her to draw someone from photos, she says she'll at least ask for multiple photos to work from, especially body shots, which help to show posture—yet another indicator of the subject's personality.

11. THEY'RE INCREASINGLY IN DEMAND.

Richmond says that although staff cartoonists may be disappearing at newspapers as that industry shrinks, editorial cartooning—which often relies on caricature—“is experiencing a boom right now." Some of this is thanks to the heated political climate, he notes. But there's a deeper reason, too: "Most media stories, TV shows, or articles are, at bottom, about people and need images of people to illustrate [them]," Richmond says. "Caricature is one thing you can’t do with a camera, so when you need a humorous touch, caricature is a great solution."

12. THERE'S A CARICATURIST CONVENTION.

The ISCA hosts an annual convention each November that draws hundreds of caricaturists from around the world. Aside from a week of guest speakers, seminars, and demonstrations, the main attraction is a days-long competition in which the artists draw each other for prizes in categories like best color technique and most humorous. (The big award there is called the Golden Nosey.) Richmond says, “The variety of styles [there] is crazy: acrylic painting, pastels, airbrush, sculpture, and everything in between.” Holt says there's even an artist who spits ink out of his mouth.

13. THEY MIGHT HIDE THINGS IN THEIR PORTRAITS.

Artwork by Al Hirschfeld on display at The New York Botanical Garden in 2011
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Richmond says that a favorite stylist of his is the late Al Hirschfeld, who for decades hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his cartoons of cultural icons for The New York Times. (Hirschfeld would append the number of Ninas to his signature, creating a kind of game for readers). Ipecacxink says she "used to draw a picture of my face in [subject's] pupils sometimes. Really tiny. Or, I used to draw a little radioactive symbol somewhere in the drawing. We had to wear these god-awful neon yellow shirts to work, and I always felt we were radioactive."

14. THEY CAN TELL WHEN YOU DON'T WANT A DRAWING.

Occasionally, parents, friends, or partners will purchase a drawing for someone who just isn't interested. In that case, the caricaturist can probably pick up on it: "They either wouldn't look at you, wouldn't smile, or just sit down funny," ipecacxink writes. "I tried to handle it professionally. I would talk, if they wouldn't talk, I'd be quiet, but smile like an idiot when it was all said and done ... I always tried to be friendly to lessen the likelihood of them leaving without paying."

15. THEY MIGHT BE SWAPPING THEIR PENCILS FOR A TABLET.

Some contemporary caricaturists paint portraits, like Owens’s traditional satirical masters once did. They may also be adept with other analog media, like bullet-tip markers, color sticks (basically colored pencils with no wood casings), pen and brush, and paper. But thanks to the changing needs of publications in an online age, which want all files submitted electronically, caricature artists working in their studios have also gone digital. Holt sometimes works on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil in Procreate. Richmond now does all his coloring on a computer or a tablet. “[A tablet’s] so convenient, because it’s like having unlimited amounts of paper, and your pencil never needs to be sharpened, and all your tools fit in a tiny bag,” he says. “But it’s still about the creativity behind it. Computers can’t do it all on their own.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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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.

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