Freight Pilots Move the World

How to land a career flying for a cargo airline.

What supports the manufacturing world of “just-in-time” inventory? Who do you call when you’ve absolutely got to have “it” the next day? Cargo airlines. And what makes the air-cargo industry go? Pilots — lots of them! Best of all, cargo operations are hiring.

If you’re a freight pilot, your next route could be an exotic one. You might wear a uniform to work, but once you are up on the flight deck, the ties, caps and epaulets come off — most freight-hauling companies allow jeans and T-shirts in the cockpit during flight. Best of all, your payloads will be some of the most interesting on the planet: from livestock to perishable goods, baseball teams to special-ops military troops and manufacturing equipment. Freight pilots rarely complain about boredom on the job.

Getting the Training

Freight pilots train the same way airline pilots do, starting in small craft and working their way up to larger turbine aircraft, often in a university setting. It’s a little easier for a freight pilot to find that first position, however, because regional airfreight companies hire first officers with a commercial pilot’s certificate with instrument rating and sometimes just 500 hours of total flight time. These pilots start in single-engine and light twin-piston aircraft. Those first nighttime cargo runs, solo in a single-engine airplane, build a pilot’s character and skills.

Purolator Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster
A Purolator Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster is loaded with freight at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Wikimedia Commons/bcaseyfuller

The next typical freighters use Cessna 208 Caravans and Beech 99 twins. Pilots with turbine time in their logbooks will find transitioning into these workhorses a simpler proposition. Expect hiring requirements for a turbine job to be 1,500 flight hours minimum.

One thing about freight flying: You’ll be loading and unloading your own airplanes, so your employer needs you to be able to lift up to 75 pounds. You will stay in shape!

Typical Workdays

A domestic freight pilot in North America can expect his or her days to be nights — literally. Most operations dispatch their cargo in the evenings, although day trips do exist. Small freight operators break down cargo brought in by larger operators, such as FedEx, UPS and even airlines. You’ll probably carry a bit of mail too.

“You need to learn to eat when you are hungry and sleep when you are tired, not necessarily at the same time as the rest of the world,” explains Atlas Air first officer Sam Lipscomb.

Atlas Air Sam Lipscomb
Sam Lipscomb is a first officer at Atlas Air. Courtesy Sam Lipscomb

Atlas Air pilots fly Boeing 767-200ER and 747-800 freighters on long-haul routes, with schedules as diverse as seven days on, seven days off to 17-day round-the-world odysseys, followed by a week or more off. The airplane you choose determines your lifestyle.

It might sound like a lot of work to fly 14 or more hours in a day, but Lipscomb is quick to remind us that pilots spend only half that time at the controls. “We all show up for the flight, and the captain will determine who needs a landing for currency, and then we know who will be flying and who will be resting and then flying,” he explains. On two-pilot airplanes, there are typically four flight crew.

Salaries and Benefits

Most pilot ranks are unionized, and the contract dictates pay. Per the FAA, pilots are limited to 100 flying hours per month and 1,000 flight hours per year. Pilots are paid by the flying hour (whenever the engines are running) and receive per diem on trips. Freight pilots start in the low $20,000 range when flying small aircraft, but they can make more than $200,000 when flying as a captain of a 747-800 freighter.

Etihad Cargo Boeing 747-800
An Etihad Cargo Boeing 747-800 operated by Atlas Air Holdings turns onto Runway 14 of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, heading to Abu Dhabi. Rahan Ahmed

Benefits are negotiated by union contract, but generally include health insurance and 401(k) retirement-matching compensation, and occasionally company profit sharing. Large companies participate in the Family Leave Act, including maternity and paternity benefits.

A Growing Industry That Is Hiring Now

Atlas Air Holdings recently negotiated a deal with amazon.com to fly its packages around the world. They are definitely hiring, Lipscomb says. But other freight operators, from FedEx and UPS to Ameriflight and Empire, are hiring too. Look up the Air Cargo Carriers Association or the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association for more information on individual companies. It’s a great time to get a foot in the door in freight.


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