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cargo pilot

Aviation stories

Life as a cargo pilot

‘What is the difference between flying passengers and flying cargo?’ Since I made the move from flying passengers in a Boeing 737-800 in Europe, to flying the Boeing 747-400 and -8 freighter, this is the question I get asked the most on my Instagram. I passed my initial line check on the Boeing 747 in the middle of June this year, which marked the end of the training phase. Since then I had a proper taste of the cargo operations, with a variety of trips and quite a busy schedule. I now experienced a full spring and summer of worldwide cargo flying, based in Hong Kong, so time to compare! 

In my previous job at a low cost passenger airline I had a very stable roster of 5 days on and 4 days off, and no night flights or layovers. The crew consisted of 2 pilots (A Captain and a First Officer) and 4 flight attendants. We brought people to their destination, and we made PA’s about the flight time and weather enroute. We had cases where a passenger required medical assistance, or on occasion we were met after parking by the police when we had informed them of a disruptive passenger on board. My last flight carrying passengers is now 12 months ago. In the belly of the airplane I fly now, you can only find pallets of freight.

A flight like any other

The total crew of the cargo flights usually consists of two pilots: a Captain and a First Officer. On longer flights we are with three or four pilots: besides the standard crew also a Second Officer and/or sometimes another Captain or First Officer. At the start of our duty we meet at dispatch to discuss the flight and paperwork, we pass through crew security and when we arrive at the airplane, the loading process is usually well on its way. We then have a standard pre-flight procedure: one pilot sets up the flight deck for departure and the other pilot does the exterior inspection. When the loading is done and all checks are completed: we close the doors and we can go. If there is an ATC restriction, we simply wait. There is no need to explain the cargo that we will not depart in the next half hour, and how we try to make up the time in flight 😉 The flight is then just like any flight, with or without passengers. 

Coffee or tea?

So what happens if we get hungry or would like a coffee during the flight? We have no flight attendants on board, so nobody will react if we ‘ding’. It might seem obvious, but many of you ask about this: yes, the pilots prepare their own coffee and meals. Just behind the flight deck, we have a galley, containing several catering boxes with plenty of food, drinks and snacks, an oven and a coffee maker. One pilot stays behind the controls in the flight deck, and the other one is free to prepare meals, stretch, use the bathroom, etc. We don’t even have a flight deck door, so we are free to walk to the upper deck during the flight. Of course we always hand over controls and communication to the other pilot when we do so.

So what is then the major difference? The main keywords of my new job: jetlags, night flights and roster changes! Jetlags come with all long haul flights, and long-haul flights are new to me, and they are not specifically cargo related. However flying freight definitely brings in the night flights and an unpredictable roster. This is a major difference from my previous job.  

Flying at night

Most cargo flights are scheduled at night, the passenger flights take those sweet day slots! I would estimate about 20% of my flights are during the day. When we have a day flight we joke about how nice it is to be flying during the day. My routes are a mix of short-, medium- and long-haul routes, and usually one or two-sector trips. When we report for a duty at night, we try to be as rested as possible. A report at midnight requires me to leave my home at 22:30. Knowing I will be working the whole night, I try to sleep beforehand, but it is really not that easy to try and fall asleep in the afternoon, when your body clock tells you it is fully awake.

Bunk in the Boeing 747

We are allowed to sleep during flights. This might sound awesome, but it is important that the pilots are alert and fit for the approach and landing phase. When we fly with only 2 pilots, we are allowed to take controlled rest if we really feel the need to. One pilot then sleeps for a short while in the pilot seat, while the other pilot takes control of the flight and communication. And if we fly with more than 2 pilots we have time to rest in the bunk. We have 2 bunks on board: a small room with a small mattress, cushions and sheets, where the crew can sleep. On long-haul flights (over 10 hours) we get about 3 hours of rest. So far I managed to sleep from the moment I got in the bunk, till being called back to operate, and this is really helpful to be as rested as possible. 

Your flight has been changed

In my new company there is no defined roster pattern; sometimes I work 1 or 2 days followed by some days off, sometimes my trips last for 7 days, and sometimes I am more than 7 days off. My days off are spread out around the month, as are my trips. So there is no standard schedule, I can request certain trips and specific days off though. But it is not unusual to have a planned trip changed to a completely different one. In fact, it is rather standard to have the planned roster completely changed! Within a block of working days, you simply have to accept that anything can happen. You might report for a certain flight, but upon reporting get changed to operate another flight, sometimes requiring you to wait for a few hours for this flights departure.

Or you expect to operate a flight, but it is changed to a positioning flight. A positioning flight is a flight you do for the company as a passenger, to get you to a certain destination from where you will operate, either straight away or after a layover, or sometimes you position after a duty. Positioning flights can be with the company, or booked with another airline. You might anticipate returning home on Tuesday, but when your block of working days finishes Friday, big chance you will get some more flights and will not return earlier than Friday. Due to these roster changes, you also might end up in a completely different part of the world. So in my suitcase I pack all kind of electric adapters, and even if I go to a subtropical destination, I still pack jeans and a jacket. I learned this the hard way by ending up in Alaska, while having packed for my trip to high summer Colombo. 

Challenging

So how to deal with the night flights, the jet lags, and the unstable roster? I really don’t mind to have my roster changed regularly, but the crossing of time zones is something to get used to. One of our most common destinations has an 18 hour time difference with Hong Kong, so this is hard on your body clock. To work through the night, or ‘the backside of the body clock’, then try to sleep when your body clock says you should be wide awake, and then report again for duty: not easy! I knew it would be challenging, but it is a bigger challenge than I expected, especially the combination of the night flights and the crossing of many time zones, also within one working trip. I try to find a way to best deal with the long-haul lifestyle: to manage my sleep, do sports regularly and be active and outside a lot. For now I think it does not affect me that much, as I am only just getting exposed to this lifestyle. The future will tell how well I will handle it on the long run, but I might need stronger filters on Instagram 😉 

Happy in Hong Kong

This job required me to move to Hong Kong, and this step actually turned out better than expected. I was enthusiastic about it, but it required leaving the wonderful city of Barcelona, my previous base, behind. But both me and my boyfriend are very happy living here, and during my days off we are constantly exploring more of Hong Kong and its surroundings. As my partner is freelancing, we manage to spend a lot of time together when I am not on a trip, and it feels like one big adventure together.

Regarding my new job I also really enjoy having layovers, to see new places and try new food. Some of the layover highlights so far, were seeing the statue of liberty in New York, taking a motor trip in Alaska, watching float planes in Anchorage while enjoying a bison burger. And talking about food: all the sushi consumed in Japan. But I have to be honest regarding the layovers: a large part of them have been really short, so then the main focus is to rest before the next flight. As fun and #instatravel as all the destinations may seem, sometimes you see not a lot more than the hotel. I get plenty weeks of leave though to enjoy traveling. 

Love for the 747

I really enjoy the newness of everything. The moment the roster comes out, I am excited to see the new destinations I can expect next month. I learn from the different aspects of long haul flying with the new procedures and experiences. I enjoy the camaraderie amongst the team of cargo pilots. The atmosphere is relaxed and I feel right at home on the fleet. As one of my colleagues captured the feeling for the Jumbo: ‘She’s the love of our flying lives.’ And there is only truth in that: we all have a special bond with the airplane we fly. I feel incredibly blessed to be flying the Boeing 747, every flight again. When you finish a flight, walk down the stairs, and look back at this incredible queen, who you just flew and taxied and parked, there is always this feeling: a mix of love and pride and awe. All in all I am really happy about the step I made and I look forward to flying during winter season.

In this blog I focussed mainly on the differences in lifestyle and roster. As I also get many questions regarding for example the loading procedure of cargo, the kind of cargo we carry, and the limitations of the 747 freighter, I will publish another article soon regarding these aspects. Stay tuned on my blog for more regarding the Boeing 747, the cargo operation and other aviation related articles 🙂 



Extra: answers to Frequently Asked Questions on flying cargo. 

Q ‘Do you do special manoeuvres since you don’t have passengers on board?’

A No, we are not doing Boeing 747 aerobatics… Absolutely the same flying as flying with passengers, no ‘tighter/more uncomfortable manoeuvres’, and yes we also avoid those storm clouds!

Q ‘Do you require any special training to fly cargo?’

A No, same training for all pilots. Did you know most passenger flights also carry freight on board? Dangerous goods is part of any airline pilot training. On cargo airplanes we do carry CAO (Cargo Aircraft Only) goods, but we learn about this as a part of the Dangerous Goods training, which is a standard training for all airline pilots.

Q ‘Don’t you miss flying passengers? Does flying cargo bring you less satisfaction?’

A I love flying cargo, but one thing I do miss about passenger flying is meeting the kids, who came into the flight deck to have a peek at the pilots office before or after the flight. Other than that, I enjoy flying freight!

Q ‘Is becoming a cargo pilot easier and cheaper than becoming a passenger pilot?’

A It seems a lot of people think that a cargo pilot and a passenger pilot are different kind of pilots? This is not the case. The airline I fly for used to have a mix of 747 pax and freighters, and the 747 rated pilots flew both types. All pilots have the same rating. Also a lot of you seem to think that there are differences in salary between pilots who operate passengers or cargo flights? No, there is the same pay. Or that you have to earn a minimum amount of hours flying cargo before flying passengers, or additional training? Not true. Any cargo pilot would be allowed to fly passengers and the other way around: it does not matter what is in the airplane, freight or passengers. After all: we have a 747 rating, not a 747 freighter rating 🙂

Q ‘Is it stressful waiting for all the cargo to be loaded? Are there a lot of delays?’

A Absolutely no stress regarding cargo loading. Great loading teams take care of the loading and unloading of cargo at all stations, the pilots don’t get involved much in this (this is for a later blog). When we start the flight, usually the loading is almost finished. And a cargo turnaround of normally about 2 hours is scheduled for unloading and reloading: this is realistic scheduling. In this period we prepare the next flight and relax 🙂

Q ‘How did you get your job working in the cargo section of an airline?’

A I wrote about this! See this article: Next chapter: Boeing 747, the queen of the skies

Q ‘Why did you prefer cargo and not commercial aviation? What should I choose, cargo or commercial?’

A Commercial aviation = cargo flights and passenger flights. With your pilot license, you will always be ok to fly both passengers and cargo. No choices to be made here. But if you mean to choose between flying passengers or cargo: well try to find some answers for yourself. Is it important for you what you fly? Why? Are you flexible to not care about a changing roster that much? I experienced both passenger and cargo flying, and I really enjoy both! But I always had the idea to try cargo flying. I used to work in operations at a cargo airline (Martinair), and the cargo pilots I met there were the type of people I wanted to work with. The good thing is it is not a definite choice to make: you can just as easy switch from a job flying passengers, to a job where you fly cargo, and the other way around. 

Q ‘Do you have wifi on board? Can you read in flight?’

A We do not have wifi on board. Yes in cruise when the conditions allow for it you can read, talk, eat, and drink lots of coffee.

Q ‘Do passenger flights get priority in takeoff/landing slots over cargo flights by ATC?’

A No.

Q ‘Do you sometimes make a PA and then realise you were confused, as you are not flying passengers?’

A No we are well aware we fly cargo and we don’t make PA’s to our pallets of freight. However, when we have crew in the upper deck on a flight, such as ground engineers, or positioning crew (non-operating crew traveling for the company), we do make short PA’s to advise on take-off and landing. 

Q ‘Do cargo pilots also have to go through security? Normal passenger security?’

A Yes, we go through security: we pass through crew/staff channels, like all air crew.

Q ‘Do you only ever fly Hong Kong to Anchorage?’

A In my company Anchorage is always the first and last stop of a pattern through the USA or to Mexico, and it is a major cargo destination, so yes I will fly there regularly. But it is not the only destination, although we joke it is our second home 😉 So far I flew with the 747, besides to Hong Kong and Anchorage, to New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Narita, Osaka, Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Dhaka, Colombo, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Penang, Taipei, and Shanghai. There are still a lot of destinations in the network I did not get rostered for yet.