I’ve loved airplanes and aviation all my life. As a child my parents often ferried me to Orlando International Airport to ride the monorails and watch planes take off and land. Despite the congested, two hour round-trip journey from our house in Casselberry, I relished spending a whole afternoon basking in a place that barely registers to most people. In high school I borrowed a scanner from a friend and would fall asleep listening to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport tower handle departing or arriving planes. Our old house sits directly under the flight path for runway 1 4 Left. One time when flying to Palm Springs from JFK I listened, enraptured, to the air traffic controllers the entire flight.
I know more about the different classes of airspace then most people ever will. I have read numerous books on the principles of flight. My favorite is Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche written, oddly enough, in 1944. I have VFR and IFR sections of the New York City airspace, which show the invisible navigational fixes controllers use to guide planes safely in one of the nation’s busiest airspaces. Friends have generously taken me flying in their aircraft. I got a tour of a 747 cockpit en-route to Damascus at the age of eight. The view out those front windows -- over the North Atlantic at 40,000 feet -- you never forget.
I am not a pilot, and during my bout of unemployment I learned I am too old to enroll in air traffic controller school. My career has nothing to do with aviation. Lately, however, I begun to see similarities between what I do and piloting an aircraft. Flying an airplane and running a light board for a live T.V. show seem to have little in common. However, I think they are some striking similarities worth discussing.
First let’s get the obvious differences out of the way. Driving a console does not involve life or death decisions. If I mess up consistently, I get fired. If a pilot messes up, he or she dies and possibly kills other people. I can run a light board in all weather conditions without issue; airplanes, however, really don’t like heavy rain, snow, or wind. An aircraft is a physical thing that moves through space. Conversely, as my Fitbit continually alerts me, I move very little during the day. Rarely do pilots fly to entertain, whereas my job encompasses nothing but.
However it’s the similarities between the two I find most alluring. Running a light board is slowly becoming about systems management. Light boards are complex computers which control a vast array of things - moving lights, dimmers, LED fixtures, media servers, NSPs, nodes, RPUs, and the occasional coffee pot. Consoles use a variety of protocols to communicate to these diverse devices. Board programmers need a basic knowledge of systems much more than they did just ten years ago. More in-depth knowledge of these systems and how they communicate will only lead to greater employability. If you call yourself a programmer and can only only program an Express or Insight -- a single console linked to a dimmer or dimmers -- God help you in finding future work after your current gig.
Flying airplanes, too, is becoming more about systems management. Modern jets are complex flying computers that use various sensors to handle the mundane details of routine flying. Pilots maneuver -- when they actually maneuver at all -- by moving something akin to a joystick which attaches to a computer, not a flight surface like a rudder or aileron. Instead the computer tells the rudder or aileron to move. The computer also ignores accidental input -- say the pilot kicks the joystick -- if it deems the maneuver too extreme. If a generator fails while in flight, the computer has the backup online and sends an alert message to the airline’s maintenance department before the pilot has seen the flashing indicator light. Via the various autopilot modes, the computer handles a huge percentage of the actual flying time. Usually only the first moments of take off and final minutes of landing are handled directly by the captain. Pilots are rapidly becoming systems administrators who oversee a complex machine as it flies through the sky (a lot like board operators), and less a simple fly-by-wire pilot of earlier eras.
Most television shows are called by the director. He or she acts as the focal point through which all communication flows. Directors tell the various people, like audio, lighting, tape, cameras, chyron, what to do and when to do it. Producers tell the director what they’d like to see, and the director weaves those elements -- full screens, SOTs, and VOs -- into the show. The director of a TV show acts as the neural hub. He or she tells the TD which shots to take, helps cameras frame up shots, cues the floor manager, tells tape when to play, manages lower third graphics, and gives LDs basic cues for uncovered or covered turns. It’s the director that sees everything via the control room monitors.
The obvious metaphor that comes to mind is the air traffic controller. These government employees monitor and control much of the country’s airspace. For example, to execute any maneuver in areas surrounding busy airports and in all airspace above 18,000 feet requires permission from air traffic control (ATC). They keep planes vertically separated by a 1,000 feet and horizontally separated by several miles. They tell pilots where to go, how to get there, and what speed they should take. One pilot cannot know all that is happening around him or her. Thus, ATC acts as the overseer who makes sure every aircraft weaves together seamlessly exactly like a television director weaves their elements and ancillary departments.
To an outsider how we communicate during a live television show must sound cryptic. A few examples:
- “Full screen. Take. Change. Change. Change. Ready two. Take.”
- “Ready one. Take one. Fly it in. Let it breathe. Run social. Ready four. Fly it out. Take four.”
- “Camera three truck left. Go get your focus. Hold, three. Detail out on the three. Ready, three. Take three.”
- “After the cold open, we come back to camera two with a box left. Then a full screen, and then a SOT on Y. Stand by, all. Take. Mic. Cue.”
- “Audio, a little more NAT from rem 13.”
Similarly, how ATC communicates to airplanes can be quite difficult to understand. A few examples:
- “Speedbird six eight four heavy Kennedy tower caution wake turbulence runway three one left taxi into position and hold.”
- “Do you have the Juliet information?”
- “Heathrow ground, Cessna Golf Echo Golf November Romeo, on west apron, with information Tango, request taxi for V-F-R flight departing to the south."
- “LaGuardia Tower Delta seven two six holding short three one.”
- “United five one two cleared to land three one expressway visual approach.”
For both pilots and board operators communication must be concise and quick. Single syllable words and short phrases work best because time is always of the essence. Furthermore, everyone shares one line for official chatter, while private lines (or frequencies in a pilot’s case) are utilized to talk privately to other parties. For example I can speak privately to video shading or a specific camera if I need something but don’t want it part of the official record, i.e., the director knowing about it.
Usually, little changes during a T.V. show. Rehearsals and plans have been set before anyone rolls the open. Then, suddenly, everything changes and all the plans are thrown out. In a moment the host has stood up and you’re re-lighting him or her on-the-fly. The floor manager sits a guest in the wrong seat. A very black man sits next to a very white man, who share a camera, and you’re struggling to find a proper balance to make both look good in the remaining seconds of the commercial break. During an event or concert the act goes rouge and you’re forced to abandon the cue stack and punt. Without warning the board operator must spring into action and make quick decisions effortlessly and under enormous time constraints.
Pilots face remarkably similar circumstances. There’s a saying: Flying an airplane is hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Flying in Class A airspace is remarkably monotonous. Sometimes pilots fall asleep. The scenery below changes very, very slowly. The intensely bright light from the sun and clouds has a uniquely soporific affect. The airplane flies on autopilot which navigates itself through a preprogrammed route to a preprogrammed destination. The pilot cannot do anything without permission from A.T.C. He or she decides the flight path before takeoff, so there are less decisions to make mid-air.
Then, suddenly, everything changes. A passenger onboard has a cardiac episode. An engine swallows a bird. Bad weather closes an airport. An infant has an asthma attack. Suddenly the old plans are chucked. Drawing on prior training the pilot must still fly the plane while now also contending with a whole set of new, unexpected variables and figure out a workable solution ... much like light board operators.
So, really, the two seemingly distinct professions are quite similar. What can we learn by this comparison? For one, pilots never stop training, and board operators shouldn’t either. If a pilot never lands with one engine down in a simulator, how can we expect them to land the real aircraft under identical circumstances when the stakes are much higher? Similarly, if a board-op has never trained for how to react when things go to pieces, how effective will they be under live show conditions when, invariably, things go to pieces?
Computers soon will probably be capable of flying planes from start to finish. Modern lighting consoles, using a click track or some other wizardry, could probably run an entire show without manned guidance. Even crew-less control rooms are beginning to crop up as “effective” cost-saving measures. Will humans ever be factored out of the equation? Unlikely. We aren’t paid to be there -- whether flying an aircraft or running a console -- for the ordinary circumstances. Rather, we are paid to make those quick decisions in unforeseen, extra-ordinary circumstances. We are paid to help make changes that benefit the overall endeavor, that help the production evolve, or the flight plan become more finessed. We are paid to remain cool and in control in the face of growing ambiguity. We calmly make the quick decisions in atypical situations that make a difference. For now, at least, a machine without people only acts. People, however, react.
Pilots document every hour they fly, and they summarize the conditions of the flight in a log book. New pilots have several hundred hours of flight time, experts possess many, many thousand. I think professional programmers should think the same way. For example, I have (via my log book, a page of which you can see here) documented over 493 hours on the Ion in the past 14 months. I can show a potential client the amount of hours and conditions I’ve programmed a specific board, which provides an unbiased guide delineating my competence. Just because I’ve driven an Ion for many hours does not automatically make me immediately qualified to run a Gio or Eos. Sure they’re similar, but not identical. Also, just because I’ve driven an Ion in ideal circumstances during, for example, an easy Off-Broadway show does not make me qualified to handle more stressful environments, like live T.V., on the same console. A log book would make an ideal place to list that training and experience, a record for both programmer and employer showing exactly what I can and cannot do.
The airline industry uses the check-ride system to help ensure pilot competence. A more experienced pilot helps coach a less experienced pilot in unfamiliar circumstances, aircraft, or airports. This system works remarkably well for spreading knowledge and best practices among a larger population. My employer does this systematically, with LDs training other LDs to run shows they may not be familiar with. It makes sense and works well. We’re able to compare notes on best ways to run a particular console. My shortcuts and knowledge cross pollenate with the other person’s different shortcuts and knowledge. Both parties come away with a greater understanding. The airline industry shows us that a healthy, robust shadowing program benefits all.
I will likely never pilot an aircraft alone. I take prescription medication that makes me ineligible to ever get my private pilot certificate. I’ll never know what it’s like to bank a twin engine aircraft, stick a night landing at an unfamiliar airport, or navigate my way through New York’s airspace. I seriously thought about lying during the physical and denying I took medication. Turns out that’s a felony. The jail time and hefty fine would not endear me, respectively, to my employer and wife. To be fair, my wife may not like the jail time either. Live television will have to do.
I can only imagine what pilots must feel like as they taxi up to the runway and wait for clearance to take-off. I can only guess at the feeling of anticipation that must live deep in their abdomen. I suspect it feels remarkably similar to how I feel seconds before the cold open. The studio becomes permeated with a focused tension. We become a machine of one mind, ready for anything. Any second now we’ll get word from the director and away we’ll go, venturing forth into the unknown. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe today will be our biggest defeat. Or, maybe today will be our biggest triumph over the forces of chaos that seek to undermine our efforts.
3 … 2 … 1 …. Up. Mic. Cue.
Lance Darcy is a Lighting Designer and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.