8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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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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12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Easter Bunnies

This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every year, thousands of families, church groups, and event planners enlist entertainment companies to dispatch a costumed bunny for their Easter celebrations. These performers often endure oppressive heat, frightened children, and other indignities to bring joy to the season.

It can be a thankless job, which is why Mental Floss approached several hares and their handlers for some insight into what makes for a successful appearance, the numerous occupational hazards, and why they can be harassed while holding a giant carrot. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on under the ears.

1. They might be watching netflix under the mask.

Has a bunny ever seemed slow to respond to your child? He or she might be in the middle of a binge-watch. Jennifer Ellison, the sales and marketing manager for San Diego Kids’ Party Rentals and a bunny wrangler during the Easter season, says that extended party engagements might lead their furry foot soldiers to seek distractions while in costume. “We book the bunny by the hour and he is often booked for multiple hour blocks,” she says. “Listening to music definitely helps the time pass.” One of her bunny friends who does a lot of shopping mall appearances has even rigged up a harness that can cradle a smart phone. “It sits above the bunny's nose, resting right at eye level for the performer inside, easily allowing the performer to stream Netflix, scroll through Facebook, or check emails.”

2. They can’t walk on wet grass.

Bunnies that appear at private functions, like backyard parties or egg hunts, have to maintain the illusion of being a character and not a human in a furry costume. According to Albert Joseph, the owner of Albert Joseph Entertainment in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of Easter engagements, one of the cardinal rules is never to set foot on wet grass. Why? “They wear regular shoes under their giant bunny feet,” he says. “If they step on wet grass and then walk on cement, they’ll make a human foot print, not a bunny print.”

3. There’s a reason they might not pick up your kid.

Bunnies might be amenable to posing for a photo with your child on their lap, but they’re probably not going to grab the little tyke and sweep them off their feet. According to Steve Rothenberg, a veteran performer and owner of Talk of the Town Entertainment in Rockville, Maryland, deadlifting a kid is against the rules. “The last thing you want is to lift them up and have them knock off your head,” he says.

4. Giant carrots will invite inappropriate behavior.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
As the 3-foot-long carrot proves, adults are easily the least mature guests at a child's Easter party.
lisafx/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Joseph’s warren of party bunnies usually come equipped with a 3-foot-long giant carrot as a prop. While children are amused by the oversized vegetable, the adults at the parties usually can’t help making observations. “Practically every visit, there’s always someone saying, ‘My, what a big carrot you have,’” he says.

On one occasion, Joseph attended a function at a retirement home. One of the women, who he estimated to be in her 80s, commented on his big feet in a lascivious manner. “She told me she was in room 37.”

5. Clothes make the bunny.

Easter bunny at the White House.
Every year, a well-dressed Easter bunny visits Washington, D.C. for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While “naked” (i.e., unclothed) bunnies remain popular, Ellison’s lineup also includes Mr. Bunny, a “classy lad with a top hat and vest,” and a Mrs. Bunny sporting a purple dress. Why would kids care if a bunny has sartorial sense? “Kids can probably better relate to a giant, furry character if it's dressed like a human,” Ellison says. “[And] we just thought the costumes looked cute.”

6. They can’t wear dark clothing underneath.

If a bunny wants to wear a black shirt under his or her fur, it stands to reason there wouldn’t be any issue: It's all hidden from sight. But Joseph insists that his cast stick with white apparel only. In addition to being cooler, it serves a practical function. “There’s always an opportunity to see a little something around the neckline or near the feet,” he says. Light clothing helps preserve the character.

7. They use an upholstery cleaner for their heads.

Most bunny costumes can be tossed in any regular washing machine, with the feet going in a larger commercial-use unit. But the heads, which are typically massive and unwieldy, get special attention. “You know those upholstery cleaners you can rent from a grocery store?” Joseph asks. “We use those. There’s a wand attachment to it for cleaning carpet.”

8. There’s a trick to keeping cool.

Costumes made of fake fur in the spring can be a recipe for disaster—or at least some lightheadedness. While none of the bunnies we profiled had experienced fainting spells, Ellison says that the trick to staying cool is actually adding a layer underneath the outfit. “Light, breathable clothing underneath the suit usually does the trick, but some people choose to wear an ice vest under the suit as well.”

Many bunnies also work in intervals: 45 to 50 minutes “on,” and 10 to 15 minutes in a private area to cool off and drink water. “Clients are usually understanding and sympathetic of the bunny and will allow even more breaks if necessary,” Ellison says.

9. Mints are essential.

Bunnies may favor carrots and grass, but their human operators need something other than that in order to deal with the humidity. Rothenberg says that his bunnies usually nibble on mints while working a crowd. “They’ll typically chew gum or have some kind of mint to keep their throat from drying out,” he says.

10. They use bunny handlers to prevent knockdowns.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
An Easter Bunny makes a young girl's day.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Any professional bunny knows that having an assistant watching their back is the best way to ensure an appearance goes smoothly. “Your vision is limited and you can’t really look to the left or right,” Rothenberg says. “Having an assistant prevents kids from running up behind you.”

11. They have damaged butts.

In order to ease apprehensive kids, Joseph advocates for his bunnies to squat near a child rather than bend over. “It gets them at a child’s level so they can touch and feel for themselves,” he says. “But a bunny that does a lot of squatting winds up needing their [costume] butts re-sewn. I’ve repaired a lot of them.” Joseph will also invite mothers to sit on the bunny’s lap so fearful children are more likely to approach. “You don’t want to prod the kid,” he says.

12. They’re not just for easter.

While bunny costume season is a fleeting few weeks, companies are happy to roll out their rabbits for other occasions. Once, Ellison sent out a bunny for a customer’s Alice in Wonderland-themed gathering. “The client wanted the White Rabbit, so we dressed up our bunny in a vest and top hat and gave him an over-sized pocket watch. It worked out great.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.