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14 Ethereal Secrets of Skywriters

The first time humans saw a message written in the sky was during World War I, when pilots in the British Royal Air Force used skywriting to communicate with troops. In 1922, a Royal Air Force captain took the technique to the world of advertising, writing aerial messages in England and New York City. Brands such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ford, and Pepsi soon employed skywriters to advertise in the great blue yonder, a practice that continues today.

If you’ve ever looked up at a sky-written message and wondered about the person flying the plane, you’re in luck. Check out these secrets of skywriters for an inside-the-cockpit view.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY ACROBATS IN THE SKY.

“Your professional sky-writer is a trained aerial acrobat,” famed aviator and skywriter Oliver Colin LeBoutillier wrote in the March 1929 edition of Popular Science Monthly. Besides successfully navigating a plane at 10,000 feet, skywriters must also diagram and memorize each maneuver and perform it with complete precision. They have to write their messages upside-down and backwards, so that it’s legible to people on the ground, and they can’t see what they’re writing when they’re up in the sky. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and still there’s a learning curve,” skywriter Greg Stinis tells Quartz.

2. THEY VALUE BREVITY.

If you find Twitter’s character limit challenging, you’ve probably never written a message in the sky. Depending on weather conditions, a skywritten message will evaporate within a few minutes to a few hours. Because of this time pressure, skywriters need to keep their messages brief. They’re also limited by the amount of fuel and skywriting fluid their plane can hold. Most can only write 10 letters, but skywriter Suzanne Asbury-Oliver and her husband, Steve Oliver, have a modified plane that makes it possible for them to write up to 25 letters.

3. THEY VIEW THEMSELVES AS ARTISTS.

Although they’re highly skilled pilots with tons of technical knowledge, skywriters think of their work as an art form. They begin a job by sketching the message on a piece of paper, planning and diagramming each twist and turn. And once they’re in the air, they have to use their intuition to feel their way around the letters. “The only bad part is that I can’t take my canvas of art away with me. Eventually it fades away. It goes with the breeze,” Stinis says.

4. THEY LOVE HOLIDAYS AND BIG ANNUAL EVENTS.

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According to Glenn Smith, a skywriter based in Australia, holidays and big annual events are his bread and butter. “It is the big events of the year that guarantee the work—the Melbourne Cup, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and Valentine’s Day,” Smith says. Companies may hire skywriters to advertise during music festivals, movie premieres, and baseball games because the message will get a lot of eyeballs. And Valentine’s Day is a popular day for marriage proposals and other big romantic gestures.

5. THEIR CUSTOMERS PAY THEM LARGE AMOUNTS …

Skywriting is a costly enterprise. Because skywriters must pay for a high-horsepower plane, plane maintenance, fuel, and skywriting fluid, which can cost $10 a gallon, a typical job costs thousands of dollars. And the price can quickly go up. Asbury-Oliver tells Bloomberg that the most expensive part of skywriting is transporting the airplane to the job. “It costs about $2 a mile to move the airplane. If we’re in Tucson, Arizona, and [clients] want something in San Francisco, we have to charge them for mileage.”

6. … BUT MOST SKYWRITERS NEED A SECOND JOB.

For Smith, who owns an engineering company, skywriting is not a full-time job. “My primary income is from my engineering business—you wouldn’t be able to run an airplane, run a family, and pay a mortgage out of skywriting. You do it because you have a passion for it,” he says. Today, because fewer companies are hiring skywriters, only a few people are able to earn enough to make it their full-time job. “We always have called [skywriting] a lost art because it was dwindling when I started and it still is dwindling … There's really just a handful of skywriters left,” Asbury-Oliver tells The Atlantic.

7. TYPOS ARE THEIR GREATEST FEAR.

Because skywriters don’t have the luxury of using erasers or pressing the delete key, complete precision is a major job requirement. Although skywritten typos and misspelled hashtags do happen, it’s rare for a professional with years of experience to make a mistake. When mistakes do happen, though, a pilot might draw a line through the error and start the message over. And in a large city, millions of people will see the typo before it evaporates.

8. A CLOUDY DAY MEANS THEY CAN’T WORK.

Because skywriting fluid appears white, cloudy days mean that a skywritten message won’t be visible. Skywriters aim to work on clear, cool days with high humidity and minimal wind. Since weather can be unpredictable, most skywriters won’t promise that your message will be written at an exact date and time. “We need at least a three-day window to get their message up there,” Oliver explains.

9. THEY’VE CAUSED TRAFFIC JAMS AND CAR ACCIDENTS.

Skywriters have the power to turn heads, stop traffic, and distract drivers. Because skywriting appears slowly, letter by letter, people often try to figure out what the message is as it’s being written. “When people see [skywriting], they literally slam on their brakes in green lights and stick their heads out the window,” Asbury-Oliver says.

10. THEY KEEP THEIR TRADE SECRETS CLOSE TO THEIR CHEST.

Because skywriting has historically been a highly competitive field, skywriters have carefully guarded the technical secrets of their job. Oliver tells mental_floss that there’s no certification program and no written training manual. Aspiring skywriters, even if they’re highly skilled pilots, must learn the craft from someone who knows it already. Asbury-Oliver, who worked for Pepsi’s skywriting program until it ended in 2000, couldn’t reveal trade secrets to anyone without violating her contract. And today’s skywriters, such as Stinis, try to keep the business in the family—his father taught him how to skywrite, and he taught his son.

11. SKYTYPERS HAVE BROUGHT SKYWRITING INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD.

Traditional skywriting differs from skytyping, a digital form of skywriting in which multiple planes (usually five) use a centralized computer system to quickly and accurately create a message. Stinis’s father Andy patented skytyping in the 1960s, and Stinis’s company uses the technique, which is similar to dot matrix printing, to create automated messages. Skytyping requires less artistry than regular skywriting because the planes rely on a computer (rather than pilot) for much of the work.

12. THEY LIKE SOCIAL MEDIA.

Social media has boosted skywriting’s popularity. With Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat, and Instagram, people around the world can see a skywritten message even as it’s being created, the messages reach more eyeballs, and they can be preserved for far longer. Although the message is lost when the smoke vaporizes, the internet is forever.

13. THEY TRAVEL ALL AROUND THE WORLD FOR WORK.

Because skywriters are few and far between, companies are often willing to pay them to travel. It takes time and money to transport a plane, though, so Stinis and his son Stephen own planes in Spain, France, and South Africa. Stinis has done jobs in Japan and Dubai, and Oliver and Asbury-Oliver have skywritten messages in all 50 U.S. states, Mexico, Canada, and El Salvador.

14. WE MAY SEE COLORED AND GLOW-IN-THE-DARK SKYWRITING IN THE FUTURE.

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Although it is possible to skywrite with colored (rather than white) fluid, it’s more difficult to work with. For over four decades, Stinis’s company has experimented with dyes to produce colored smoke, but hasn’t found a functional, cost-effective solution yet. If the technology progresses, we may regularly see colored skywriting—or even glow-in-the-dark skywriting for nighttime use—in the future.

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11 Behind-the-Counter Secrets of Baristas
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Being a barista is no easy task, and it’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. While people often think working at a cafe is a part-time, temporary gig, it takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and most baristas are in it for the love of coffee, not just to pay the bills. Mental Floss spoke to a few baristas working at the New York Coffee Festival to learn what exactly goes on behind the counter, and why you should never, ever dump your extra coffee in the trash.

1. THEY REALLY LOVE COFFEE.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the profession, says New York City-based barista Kayla Bird, is “that it's not a real job.” But especially in specialty cafes, many baristas are in it for the long haul. Coffee is their career.

“It's a chosen field,” as barista Virgil San Miguel puts it. “It's not like you work in a coffee shop because it's a glamorous job,” he explains. “It's more like a passion.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF TRAINING.

“Being a really good barista takes a lot of studying,” explains Jake Griffin, a wholesale representative for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters who has worked in the coffee industry for almost a decade. “It can take a few years. You have to start to understand origins, production methods, where your coffee came from.” You have to go through an intensive education before you start pulling espresso shots for customers, so it's possible that the person taking your order and fetching your pastry isn't even allowed to make you a drink yet. “They have to be what we call 'bar certified' before they're even allowed on the machine,” he says. “Usually people start off in our cafes in various support roles, then start to go to classes and go through the training program.”

3. THEY’RE PROBABLY PRETTY WIRED.

Sure, baristas take full advantage of all that free coffee. And if they work in their company’s training programs, their whole job is to drink coffee. But it has its downsides. “I taste—at minimum—ten shots of espresso a day,” John Hrabe, who trains baristas at Birch Coffee in New York City, says. On his busier days, it might be as many as 20. You get used to all the caffeine, he claims—at least until you take a few days off. “Then when you go on vacation and you're not working ... everyone's like, 'Why's John so tired?’”

Other baristas who have worked in the field for a long time say the same. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I used to have five or six coffees a day,” Michael Sadler, who helped develop the barista education program at Toby’s Coffee, says. “Now I do two,” he says, both because of the caffeine-induced anxiety and the withdrawal headaches he would get on his days off.

4. OR THEY’RE DRINKING … SOMETHING ELSE.

Like any job, there are things that go on in coffee shops that the boss would definitely not approve of. According to one barista who has worked at both a corporate coffee chain and specialty cafes in Delaware and New York, coffee shops can get pretty rowdy behind-the-scenes. “If you see a barista with a lidded cup behind the bar, there's probably a 50/50 chance: It's either coffee or beer,” he says. “You never know.” And it’s not just the booze, either. “I’ve been a part of secret menus that have cannabis-infused coconut milk,” he explains. “I had a pretty good cappuccino.”

5. THEY GET ANNOYED WHEN YOU SKIP THE PLEASANTRIES.

You don’t want to hold up the line telling a barista your life story at 7 a.m., but even if you’re in a hurry, don’t forget to say hi before you jump into demanding that large coffee. “Walking up to somebody and saying 'Almond latte,' when they just said 'How are you today?' is probably the biggest thing you can do to get on a barista's bad side,” Toby's Coffee's Sadler says. “It's like, exchange pleasantries, then get to business.”

6. IF YOU’RE NOT NICE TO THEM, THEY WON’T BE NICE TO YOU.

Not everyone is super perky in the morning, but if you can’t be civil, you’re better off making your own coffee at home. At some places, if you get snippy with the employees, you’re going to get worse than furtive eye rolls between baristas (though you’ll get that, too).

“Be nice to your baristas, or you get decaf,” warns one barista. While it varies from cafe to cafe, multiple baristas told Mental Floss that it happens. Rude customers might get three letters written on their cup: “They call it DTB—‘decaf that bitch.’”

There’s a less potent way a barista can get back at you, too. If the hole in your coffee lid lines up with the seam of your paper cup, you’re going to get dripped on. And sometimes, it’s not an accident. “When a barista puts the mouth on the seam, they want it to leak on you,” a New York City-based barista explains.

Others are a little more forgiving of rude patrons. “I like making them the best drink that they've ever had, just to kill them with kindness,” one coffee shop employee says. “I don't want them to be like, ‘She’s a bad barista.’” Just to be safe, though, it's better to be nice.

7. THEY PROBABLY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO.

“The longer you work in coffee, the more when someone walks in the door you read their personality type and say, I know exactly what you're going to drink,” Jared Hamilton, a self-described “espresso wizard” at the Brooklyn-based chain Cafe Grumpy, says. When I ask him to predict my drink, he proves his skills. “What you're going to drink is like, an alternative milk, flat white or cappuccino. So maybe soy, probably almond. Nonstandard. You don't want a lot of milk, just enough.” He’s not too far off—my go-to is, in fact, a non-standard, some-milk-but-not-too-much drink, a decaf cappuccino, though I drink regular milk in it. He points to another festival visitor who is dressed in business attire. "That guy right there, he drinks espresso all day," he guesses.

Depending on the coffee shop, the barista might know what customers want more than they do. Dominique Richards, who started her first barista job in Brooklyn three months ago, says she has to order for her customers around a third of the time. “Usually if someone's looking at the menu for more than 30 seconds, I jump in and say, ‘Hey, what would you like?’” She then asks them a few questions, like whether they want hot or cold coffee, and goes from there, often recommending lattes for people who are just getting into specialty coffee. “It's kind of a learning experience for the majority” of her customers, she says.

8. CUSTOMERS CAN BE REALLY PARTICULAR.

“People treat cafes like they're [their own] kitchen,” according to Cafe Grumpy’s Hamilton. “My favorite thing people do is when they walk in and they rearrange the condiment bar. Then they order, then they go use the condiments.” Apparently, some people are really particular about the location of their sugar packets. And if you throw off their routine, watch out. One of his colleagues describes a customer who threw a fit because the shop didn’t have a cinnamon shaker, demanding a refund for both her coffee and her pastry. (They eventually found some cinnamon for her.)

9. YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER DUMP EXTRA COFFEE STRAIGHT INTO THE TRASH.

Even if you ask for room for milk in your drip coffee, the cup is still sometimes just a bit too full. It’s tempting to just pour a little into the trash can, but whoever has to take out that garbage is going to pay for it. “Please don't pour it in the garbage,” Bluestone Lane barista Marina Velazquez pleads. “Because at the end of the night, it ends up on our feet.” If the shop doesn’t have a dedicated container for you to pour out your excess coffee, take it back to the counter and ask them to dump a bit in the sink. Your baristas will thank you.

10. MAKING ESPRESSO DRINKS ISN’T A ROTE SKILL.

When you’re waiting in line, it may look like baristas are doing the same thing over and over for dozens of drinks. But in fact, every order presents its own challenges.

“There's probably not an appreciation for how much a coffee can vary,” explains Katie Duris, a former barista of 10 years who now works as a wholesale manager at Joe Coffee. High-quality coffee is “really dynamic as an ingredient,” she says. Baristas “have to make micro adjustments all day long. You have to change the grind based on the humidity in the room or a draft or how much coffee is in your hopper—if it's an espresso machine—so they're tweaking all day long … good baristas are making adjustments all the time.”

11. IT’S PHYSICALLY TAXING.

Making espresso drinks all day long can wear you out, and not just because you’re on your feet all day. There are also repetitive stress injuries to consider. “There's physical wear and tear on your joints when you're a barista,” Birch's Hrabe says. He’s worked in coffee for 11 years, and says that tamping espresso shots (compressing the grounds before brewing) day after day has given him tennis elbow. “It's totally common for baristas,” he says.

In short, baristas are probably doing more work behind the bar than you give them credit for, whether it’s dealing with customers or actually making coffee. “Being a barista is fun, but it's hard work,” Bluestone Lane's Velazquez says. “Everybody should be a barista at least once. I think it teaches humility.”

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10 Secrets of Ski Instructors
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If you’ve spent this fall wearing shorts and sandals, you’re not alone: Temperatures have been warmer than average across the United States. But no matter how warm it is where you are, there’s still snow (and skiing) in the forecast somewhere. Before you hit the slopes this winter, check out these on-the-job secrets of ski instructors, from why they love bad weather to what they do during the summer.

1. THEY LOVE BAD WEATHER.

No one can control the weather, but ski instructors cross their fingers for frosty temperatures and heavy snowfall. “Ski instructors love cold, appalling winter weather because it so often results in big snowfalls and the skier's dream—velvety powder snow,” says Chalky White, a ski instructor and the author of The 7 Secrets of Skiing.

But big snowfalls don’t always happen, so ski instructors try to make the best of whatever weather they encounter on a given day. Tony Macri of Snow Trainers, a ski and snowboard training company based in Colorado and New Zealand, tells Mental Floss that the weather’s unpredictability makes ski instructing an adventure. “I never think that weather is disappointing,” he says. “It is what creates more challenge and mystery in every day, versus going back to your cubicle that always has the same florescent light shining down on you.”

2. SOME OF THEM HAVE A BEEF WITH SNOWBOARDERS.

Although some ski instructors also teach (and love) snowboarding, the majority of them try to stay away from snowboarders on the slopes, at least when they’re teaching. “[Snowboarders] tend to push all the fresh snow down the hill with their natural movements. Gets pretty frustrating!” justind99, a ski instructor in Quebec, writes in a Reddit AMA.

But other ski instructors have a more zen attitude when it comes to snowboarders and preach coexistence. “We are all here to have fun,” rbot1, a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, says in a Reddit AMA. “The snowboarder vs skier stigma does nothing but cause problems. Share the mountain!”

3. THEIR CERTIFICATION PROCESS IS INTENSE.

Ski instructor teaching adults

Depending on the country in which they become certified, ski instructors must take classes and pass a series of tests to prove their proficiency. In the U.S., the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) establishes certification requirements for instructors. Once instructors become certified, they can take additional tests of their technical skills to earn higher levels of certification.

“Level 1 is pretty easy to get. Anyone that can ski a blue square comfortably can pass a level 1 exam,” rbot1 says. But achieving certification for higher levels is more challenging, requiring ski instructors to demonstrate their mastery of various turns, bump runs, and drills. “A single mistake in any of those runs nets you a fail,” says rbot1, who spent two years preparing for his Level 2 test. “These drills might be easy to complete, but you have to do it perfectly.”

4. THEY’VE SEEN SOME GNARLY ACCIDENTS.

Although some people think of skiing as a risky activity, ski instructors insist that, statistically, skiing is no more hazardous than many other sports. That said, most ski instructors have seen at least one nasty injury on the slopes, including broken legs and noses, concussions, and shoulder dislocations. “The worst injury I ever witnessed was a spinal fracture from a kid landing on his back after attempting to do a jump in the snow park area,” justind99 says.

“I have seen some injuries to knees, but the worst was when a friend concussed himself so bad that he was knocked out and was actually sleeping with his eyes open,” Macri says. White tells Mental Floss that a helicopter once picked him up from the slopes because medics suspected that he’d broken his neck. “Good news—I didn’t."

5. THEIR PAY ISN’T GREAT.

The income ski instructors make can vary widely, based on where they teach and their level of expertise. Some instructors earn $10 or $11 an hour for group lessons but charge more for private lessons or longer coaching sessions. While most beginning ski instructors may make just $20,000 per year, the perks of getting paid to ski outweigh the lack of cash for many instructors. “I do understand that at some point I’ll need to either start working really hard to boost my earning potential as an instructor or find another field,” rbot1 says. “For now, it’s a blast.”

6. THEY GET CREATIVE TO TEACH KIDS.

Ski instructor teaching children

A group of young kids bundled up in ski jackets while they try to balance on narrow skis might look adorable, but teaching children to ski comes with plenty of challenges. “Some kids don't have the muscles to do it at [a young] age and some do,” explains inkybus21, a ski and snowboard instructor who has taught in Canada, Australia, and Japan. To make sure his young students don’t lose interest or give up, he makes up games that require various skiing motions and uses visuals to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies.

7. THEIR EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE.

Ski equipment can be pricey, and ski instructors know the pain of an empty wallet firsthand. From skis and boots to bindings, poles, helmets, goggles, and other accessories, ski instructors can easily spend over $1000 on their equipment. And because their gear gets more use than a casual skier’s, instructors typically go through a pair of skis, boots, and liners each season. But many instructors are eligible for steep discounts on their gear, thanks to their employer or their PSIA-AASI membership. “I haven't bought anything at retail price in years,” rbot1 says. “I can’t even imagine paying full price for a pair of boots or ski/binder set up.”

8. THEY MISS SKIING DURING THE SUMMER.

In a career dependent on the winter season, what do ski instructors do during the summer? Some of them travel to the opposite hemisphere to work at a ski resort—essentially working two winters in a row. But because it can be costly to travel and live on another continent, most ski instructors work odd jobs or use their savings to rock climb and explore the outdoors in the off season. Rbot1, for example, has spent his summers working at a ski resort’s restaurant, boxing fish at an Alaskan processing plant, and living off of his savings. “Most people have a seasonal job. The most popular is raft guiding, the second most popular is working at a state park,” he says.

9. THEY GREATLY APPRECIATE TIPS.

Ski instructors don’t always receive tips from their students, and they wish more people knew that they welcome—and in some cases, expect—gratuity. Rbot1 recounts the story of how he once earned $1500, his biggest tip to date, after instructing a family of four for five days, taking them to different parts of the mountain and even eating lunch with them. “At the end of the week it was all hugs and smiles, but my hand was left dry,” he says. “Anyways, next day I got an email that said ‘you have a tip in the office’ and BOOM $1500 in an envelope.” Rbot1 made good use of the generous tip, paying two months of rent and car payments, as well as buying new ski goggles and gloves.

10. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS.

Although skiing is good exercise and an enjoyable winter activity, learning to ski can also help people feel more confident. “It’s not always about skiing and teaching people to be the best skiers,” Macri says. “A lot of [the job] is just about showing people a good time and helping them achieve their goals or overcoming their fears.”

Macri particularly appreciates the amazing views from the top of a mountain, as well as the feeling he gets when he takes students down a great run and everyone high-fives one another in joy. “I sit back and think this is my office and I am having just as amazing [a] time as everyone else. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it,” he says.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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