Flying for a cargo airline can be a rewarding career. The flying, schedules, work hours, and culture are a little different than what many passenger pilots experience.
I work for an overnight package express company that flies large aircraft, so the information below relates primarily to myself and my colleagues at similar airlines.
There are many other hard-working pilots that fly both large and small cargo aircraft in other types of operations (non-scheduled, charter, military contracts, etc). These pilots have a different work environment. A list of their job experiences would be quite different than this one.
These types of lists tend to be filled with inside jokes, so I’ve added explanations and trivia.
So, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy…
You might be a cargo pilot if:
➤ you never worry about night currency.
Pilots that fly cargo, especially overnight express (like UPS, FedEx, DHL) fly at night so customers can receive their shipments by morning. Night takeoffs and landings are the norm.
➤ your sunglasses still have the price tag on them.
➤ your non-pilot friends ask if you want to be a commercial pilot.
Pilots that fly cargo are commercial pilots. Some airlines fly people, some airlines fly cargo.
➤ you’re flying a widebody aircraft over the Pacific ocean with only 2 people on board.
That’s it! Just a captain and a first officer. U.S. rules require a second first officer for flights over 8 hours. On super long flights over 12 hours, a fourth crew member is required.
On special cargo flights, a load master, military courier, and/or maintenance technician may also accompany the crew.
➤ your in-flight uniform is a t-shirt and sweat pants on long flights.
On long flights, cargo pilots often change into more comfortable clothes after takeoff. Sweats, t-shirts, tennis shoes or slippers. About an hour before landing, we’ll change back into our uniform so we’ll be all neat and pretty when we arrive.
➤ you pack only 2 uniform shirts for a two-week trip.
➤ your acquaintances ask if you want to fly the same planes passenger pilots fly.
The majority of pilots flying large cargo aircraft fly the very same aircraft used at passenger airlines. Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, Airbus A300, A330 are all commonly used freighters. The planes fly exactly the same as their passenger counterparts.
➤ your iPad navigation app is almost always in Night Mode.
➤ your airline is buying new aircraft! (that were built before you were born)
Cargo airlines often purchase retired passenger aircraft and convert them to freighters. There’s a lot of life left in the old birds. The business model of flying cargo allows these aircraft to be very profitable as freighters.
➤ friends and family ask what airline you fly for… and they’ve never heard of it.
Here’s a good example: Atlas Air is a big name in air cargo. Many pilots instantly recognize their fleet of blue and gold 747s. Atlas also operates the Boeing Dreamlifter fleet, Amazon Prime aircraft, and a bunch of other cargo contracts. There’s a good chance you and your neighbors have never heard of Atlas.
Or in my case, a common response is: “Oh! I didn’t know UPS had airplanes. Do they have a lot?” – Yep! A fleet of 250+ aircraft with new jets entering service each year.
➤ the complimentary hors d’oeuvres in the hotel’s concierge lounge are your “big meal of the day.”
I try not to be one of those guys!
➤ you check-in to the hotel as everyone else is checking out.
As a pilot for a package express company, my day often ends when everyone else is just getting started.
➤ you miss birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, school plays, ball games, swim meets, graduations…
This one is true for most career pilots, passenger and cargo. But I’d be remiss if I left it out. It takes an incredibly supportive family (and spouse!) to be an airline pilot.
➤ you have a lavatory right there in the cockpit!
I know you’re wondering about that toilet… It’s well designed. There’s a locking bi-fold door. Pleasantly scented blue fluid takes care of your business when you flush. Airflow enters the lavatory through forward vents and exits aft into the cargo compartment. Air conditioning and engine noise during flight is loud enough to provide adequate “sonic privacy.” Even the worst noise and odors created by human physiology don’t venture onto the flight deck. You were curious, right?
➤ it’s tough to find an airline employee discount.
True story: My wife was booking a cruise for our family. She asked if they had discounts for airline employees.
“Why, yes we do! What airline does your husband fly for?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Our discount is only for real airline pilots.”
➤ your cab driver can’t find the airport cargo facility.
“Excuse me, sir. We need to go to the cargo side of the airport. We do not want to go to the terminal.“
➤ it takes less then 10 minutes to taxi and takeoff at one of the busiest airports in the world.
It’s not unusual for an aircraft to be number 20 in line for takeoff at New York’s JFK International. But not at 2 am! In the wee hours of the morning, the airport is a ghost town, making it easy for cargo flights to taxi and takeoff in just a few minutes.
➤ you don’t have any good stories that begin with “You’ll never believe what this passenger did the other day!”
Instances of passenger misbehavior far exceed cargo misbehavior.
➤ your “passengers” are loaded 4,000 pounds at a time.
Freight is loaded into 300 – 700 cubic foot containers called Unit Load Devices (ULDs) or onto pallets. Containers and pallets are lifted into the aircraft by special loading equipment then rolled and locked into position.
➤ all of your “passengers” are weighed.
All aircraft must be carefully loaded with regard to total weight and weight distribution to ensure a safe flight. Passenger airlines don’t weigh passengers. Can you imagine the outcry if they asked everyone to step on a scale? Instead, airlines use approved estimated weights to determine the weight of passengers and carry-ons.
Different weights are used in the summer and winter. An airline might use an average passenger + carry-on weight of 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter. Average passenger weights provide enough accuracy for safe aircraft loading.
In a freight operation, cargo weights and sizes vary, so everything must be weighed accurately. Before loading, each ULD and pallet weight is entered into a computerized weight and balance system. The computer figures out where each container should be loaded on the aircraft to assure proper balance.
Load supervisors take their jobs very seriously. Loading a 5,000 pound ULD in the wrong position could be catastrophic.
➤ running out of coffee constitutes an emergency (Pan-Pan! Mayday!).
Did you know? If an aircraft or ship has an urgent problem, the internationally recognized radio call is “Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan.” If an aircraft has a life-threatening emergency, the crew broadcasts “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” Pan-Pan and Mayday get the attention of others on the frequency so the crew can explain the problem and get the assistance they need.
➤ you make your own coffee and cook your own meals.
Cargo Airlines: Flight attendants need not apply. Cargo flight crews take turns standing up, stretching, making coffee, and heating meals. A pilot is at the aircraft controls at all times.
➤ you scan the ADF listening for late-night sport scores to stay alert.
The Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) is a classic navigation instrument used to find the bearing to a radio source. It receives signals from low-power non-directional beacons (NDBs) transmitting 190 – 535 kHz. ADFs also receive higher frequencies in the broadcast AM radio band. In the old days, pilots would tune to strong AM radio stations and use them to navigate (this still works, but better systems are available for navigation).
The old beacons are slowly being decommissioned in favor of GPS navigation. ADF receivers are still used on a limited basis for navigation.
➤ you carry an inflatable mattress.
Pilots often ride along in a cockpit observer seat or “jumpseat” to commute to work. Not all cargo aircraft have crew bunks and the jumpseats aren’t exactly first class. An inflatable mattress is perfect for stretching out on a dirty cockpit floor for some shut-eye!
➤ air traffic control clears you direct to your destination 800 miles away.
Air traffic is light at night, allowing ATC more flexibility and the ability to provide time-saving shortcuts. This is more common in the United States.
➤ you call a 747 by it’s classic nickname: The Whale.
“Hey skipper, where ya headed?”
“I’m flyin’ the whale up to Anchorage.”
Flight crews often refer to the 747 as The Whale. In recent years, Queen of the Skies has become the preferred nickname among AvGeeks.
➤ you laugh when passenger crews complain about turbulence.
Although cargo pilots certainly want a smooth ride (easier to drink coffee), we don’t mind a few small bumps here and there – our passengers (almost) never complain.
➤ your passengers are horses!
Occasionally, we fly live animals (horses, cattle, whales, dolphins, lions and tigers and bears, Oh My!). These passengers require special handling and, like human passengers, prefer a smooth ride.
There are cargo companies that specialize in flying race horses! One is H.E. Tex Sutton Forwarding. The company flies a Boeing 727 converted for transporting up to 21 thoroughbreds. The aircraft, operated by Kalitta Charters II, is nicknamed Air Horse One. The pilots of this aircraft always try to find a smooth ride for their very special passengers.
➤ you call the Anchorage hotel or crashpad “home.”
It so happens that Anchorage, Alaska is the halfway point between many major cities in the United States and Asia. This makes Anchorage the perfect place for cargo aircraft to stop for fuel, crew changes, and cargo sorting. In fact, Anchorage is the 4th busiest airport in the world for cargo traffic!
➤ you’re at the pinnacle of the aviation industry!
Some of the highest paid airline pilot jobs are in the cargo industry.
➤ passenger pilots ask if your company is interviewing.
See above comment.
➤ you’re at the very bottom of the aviation industry.
Some of the lowest paid pilot jobs are also in the cargo industry.
➤ you love your job and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world!
Yep. Most of us are in this career because we love to fly! Sleeping on the floor, long flights in the middle of the night, making my own coffee, not having to deal with human passengers… I wouldn’t trade it for any other career.
I know I’ve missed some good ones. If you fly cargo (large or small aircraft) feel free to add your (family friendly) “You might be a cargo pilot” experiences in the comments.
It would be interesting to hear your take on managing fatigue while living the cargo life. You might be able to get on a night schedule, but the rest of the world operates during the day, so I assume when you go home you have to convert back to daytime living. Then convert back to nighttime waking hours for work again, and then back to day, and so forth.
I asked a cargo flying friend of mine if you ever get used to that. He said “no” — but that was just one data point. Perhaps others are more malleable when it comes to regular circadian rhythm reversals? I know overnight transoceanic flights really take it out of me, and can require quite a few days to fully recover. But I don’t fly them nearly as often as you do.
I usually fly the same type of schedule every month and I have a routine that works very well for me. Our Asia system is similar to the US system. Most of the flights are at night so customers can get their packages in the morning. This works out great for me, as I can often keep my body clock on US Eastern Time. When I’m in Asia, I sleep in the day, then fly at night (which is daytime at home). It’s very much a mindset I have to get into and I have to do it religiously. That means if I’m with a new guy that wants to go shopping during the day, I respectfully decline. Nothing is more important on a two week trip than me maintaining my sleep cycle. When I finally get back home at midnight, I can go to bed and I’m only mildly groggy the next day. I’m back to normal within 24 hours.
We do have trips that flip-flop and end up flying daytime in Asia. I do my best on those with napping when necessary, and when the daytime stuff is over I get back on my Eastern Time schedule. Everyone is different so there are a lot of different techniques out there.
Similar to my Counterpart who flies in Asia, I prefer flying our night schedules in Europe.
The way our schedules, when I depart the US for Europe it is usually a day light flight anywhere from 7 AM to 10 AM if I’m operating the aircraft. Many of our flights start with deadheads over to Europe. Once there, I work between the hours of 7 PM and 7 AM in the European time zones. With the six hour difference between my East Coast time, that’s like going to work at 1:00pm in the afternoon and finishing at 1:00am in the morning. This keeps me as close to my East Coast circadian rhythm as it would be just staying up late if I was at home. It is even easier for the pilots who live in the mid west or West Coast time zones. The only drawback is the one night when you come back from Europe do you usually land on the East Coast somewhere between 5 AM and 9 AM so you’re only spending one night in a two week trip where you are up all night against your normal sleep cycle.
Hi John, thanks for the comments!
Interresting comments…that match with my own way of proceeding. Myself I’m flying for a small european long-haul leisure airline, whose network spans from Mauritius island to Montreal (and soon Miami). A lot of ‘sun down, gear up’ flight brand as well. 😉 And during layovers, me too I mostly try to remain on my Europe-living circadian cycle… 🙂
Dozens of years ago a British PM decided to hire an American to negotiate with the U.K. unions. He started to fly once a week with his team, back and forth across the Ocean. A newspaper asked him how he managed not to seem tired. Reply : I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, etc. Then a journalist got the idea to ask his team. Reply: we tried his way once. We were so ill and exhausted ! Now, on the flights, both to and from, we eat, we sleep, we drink, we smoke, we watch the movies, we do the exact opposite of what HE does. We’re doing just fine !
How many people do you usually fly with?
On flights under 8 hours there are two of us in the cockpit. Over 8 hours, there are 3 pilots. Over 12 hours, 4 pilots. Great question! I’ll have to add that to the article.
When there are four pilots is there still one captain? How is that arranged?
It may vary at different airlines. Our airline crews the plane with one captain and 1, 2, or 3 first officers depending on the length of the flight.
During my life in Air Cargo I have taken many jump seats. Both locally and transatlantic. , SD330, DC8’s, MD11’s and Electras. Great fun and gives you a real feeling of what is going on. I made food and coffee too!
I still enjoy it! Thanks for reading.
Very nice article. Lot of information put in a humorous way. Thanks. Keep them coming.
Great article. Hopefully there’s another FR24 podcast in your future!
I hope so. I enjoy doing FR24 AvTalk!
I am a freighter pilot in Brazil for 6 years, I found the article very interesting and lived in a similar way …. a big difference for me is that here in Brazil we do not work on holidays and weekends, which is a great advantage. … currently flying the 737-400 / 300
That’s cool you don’t work holidays. Very unusual in the airline industry (passenger or cargo). Fly safe!
Reading how often passengers can be just one big pain in the butt, bet flying cargo is more relaxing. Thanks for another great article.
I’m not sure I would call it relaxing. Cargo definitely has it’s unique challenges.
I currently fly cross-Canada night freight on a ‘57. Although our flights cross less time zones and are shorter than transcontinental ones, fatigue is real. Everyone has their own way of dealing with it, pre-flight, during the flight and post-flight. What works for one does not necessarily work for another. As well, Canada’s new aviation fatigue rules (effective December, 2020) falls short of addressing the numerous faucets of fatigue. For example, one could feel “fresh” at the beginning of the flight and suddenly feel fatigued a couple hours into the flight, even when that person slept well during the day. The persons mental health also factors into fatigue. Is he or she having relationship or financial difficulties? There’s also the physiological aspect that cannot be legislated. Does that pilot eat healthy and exercise regularly? Even when the person tries to eat well, sleep and exercise regularly these things only reduce fatigue, never eliminate fatigue. This fatigue issue affects everyone in aviation working the backside of the clock and not just pilots. There’s the AME working on the aircraft, ATC guiding traffic and handlers doing a myriad of jobs.
Great comments, Jon. All very true.
The information you shared was very interesting and educational. I look forward to reading whatever you choose to share. Keep the information coming! Thank you.
You know you are a cargo pilot when you fly containers instead of complainers 😉
Freight allows the option to operate aircraft one may never have the opportunity to throughout an entire passenger career. To wit, what was the average color of a Delta/Northwest 747 driver’s hair? Provided there was any, of course.
I’m not a pilot but, I was a travel agent for more than 16 years and wonder about meals aboard. Does the cargo airline supply you with your food and do you have a selection or you get what they pecure for you? Do they supply you all with snacks like candy bars, granola bars, etc? Can you request certain foods? While flying can you get some exercise by walking the length of the plane through the cargo bins behind/below you provided of course you have your back up crew sitting in your seat? Can you jump seat for free on other cargo company’s aircraft if there’s space for you? Thank you for answering my questions. Thanks again Ken for your indispensable sites answering our questions.
Great questions. Outside the cockpit of most freighters, there is no room for walking. It’s all cargo (the 747 has room to walk, but crews rarely go down there unless it’s necessary).
You’ll find a few more answers in the article: Airline Flying: Cargo vs Passengers
Great posts. My favorite part of flying cargo at night, is the drive to and from work…going to, sometimes not a car and eight wonderful and glorious empty lanes (yes, I’ve even taken pictures). Going home is usually against the gridlock side…YES!!!
I also agree with you 100% on keeping on the sleep schedule no matter what. Partners and family have to be onboard so to speak. I also have the a/c and a fan on. I wear spongy earplugs which are cut in half too so I can sleep on my side in order to make it a pleasant and restful experience.
Hi there! I have a question for you, can Cargo Airplane pilot have tattoo on forearm? Is it allowed?
I know both passenger and cargo pilots with tattoos. Wear long a sleeve shirt to the interview. If your employer has a concern with tattoos after you’re hired (or if the tattoos are not appropriate for public), wear a long sleeve uniform shirt.
And do I need ATPL if I want to work as a cargo pilot? Or CPL is enough?
Cargo pilots fly the same aircraft as passenger pilots, under the exact same regulations (Part 121). So, yes, you’ll need an ATPL. 🙂
YBBN ATC here. What are your observations about freight flying since COVID?
Pretty simple. Freight is booming.
I’ve been a big fan of your articles for a few years.
I’m currently riding the same type of birds as you are, based on Tokyo, and often park them next to one of your fleet at place like a Narita, Pudong and Inchon.
Since last year my roster shifted dramatically to midnight cargo flights. So now I reread these essays and enjoy them even more.
Here, I got something to beg for your advice. Especially on midnight at Guangzhou while waiting for offloading and on-loading the cargo, I and colleagues are suffering from many bites of mosquitoes invading into the flight deck from the open door. I wonder if you could have any way of mitigation.
It’ll be nice to go have a drink on your Narita layovers when the time is right.
Hi there! I wish I could help you with the mosquitoes. We have the same problem. My only suggestion is to keep the packs on and the doors closed. Good luck!
Hope to meet you sometime.
Can non-pilots ever fly in the jumpseat? Could you take a friend, for example?
Unfortunately, no. Only FAA designated employees can ride in a jumpseat.