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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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13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants
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When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of the Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language.

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish perimeters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

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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.

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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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