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.