Gear Up: The Big Iron

** The Boeing 747-400F opens wide for asparagus or tuna — both loads weigh in at close to 300,000

The view is from on high. It is hard to believe you are even moving. The engines are so far behind you that they produce but a whisper. Richard Rolland sits to my right in the FO's seat, flicking a few switches and acting all the while as if I'm doing the flying. We're in the 747-400 simulator in Atlas Air's Miami Training Center. Joshua Arnold, an unforgivably handsome (and young) 747 pilot and sim guru, mans the console behind us.

Taxi inputs come via a tiller that springs back to the neutral position whenever I let it go. The airplane is so long that you don't follow the yellow line when turning onto a taxiway; you taxi until the centerline of the next taxiway is over your shoulder, and then you turn toward it. Given the seductively slow scene out of the window, I make my first turn at a groundspeed of 40 knots, skipping the nosewheels on the pavement until I have taxied the airplane into the grass. Everybody is reassuring that this happens all the time.

Once magically aligned with the runway (sims are good that way), I "stand the throttles up," punch the auto­throttle button, and hang on as the fadecs set takeoff power, pulling my hand gently forward, like an innocent child coaxed into a doctor's office by his mother. When it comes to the V1 cut, I am surprisingly somnolent. I feel so detached from this slow-moving object drifting down the runway that a slight slide to the left seems like a surreal and not particularly threatening development. Only when Richard says ­"rotate" do I realize I am about to exit the runway — to the side. A loud thunk comes from back there somewhere. I have either scraped an engine, hit a runway light or had a tail strike. Does it really matter?

All this fun came about because Richard, who is vice president of Safety and Regulatory Compliance, gave his business card to a friend of mine. Richard has been a Flying magazine reader forever, had a story about flying with Aeroflot during the Cold War published in the magazine in 1984, and owns a Super Commander 114, which he flies when he's not driving one of Atlas' 747s around the world.

A tour of the training center in Miami was arranged on a spring morning. As we walked by a waiting area fitted with 1970s furniture and a Pan Am clock, I gained my first inkling as to what long-haul, big-time, heavy, profitable, worldwide cargo flying is all about. And that's not all that Atlas does.

In the early 1990s Michael Chowdry, a Pakistani-American aviation enthusiast, noted that passenger airlines were in financial distress but that heavy freighters were in high demand. In 1993, with one Boeing 747 contracted to China Airlines, Atlas started up. Today it operates the world's largest fleet of 747s (total 38) and 11 Boeing 767s. Last year Atlas touched down in 350 cities in 124 countries around the world. The missions are as varied as the destinations. If it fits in a 747, be it tractors, racehorses, Formula One racing cars or humans, Atlas carries it. Too bad Chowdry isn't around to see it. He died in his Czech L-39 trainer in 2001.

Atlas was named after the Titan in Greek mythology who carried the heavens on his shoulders. The symbol on those airplanes in Atlas colors is a golden man carrying a golden world on his shoulders.

What weighs more: a 747 full of asparagus or one full of fish? Fish is the answer but vegetables and flowers, surprisingly, are close. Flowers travel in refrigerated containers and have high water content. They are airborne just hours after being cut. The heaviest hauls on a 747-8F so far have been 135 metric tons (about 300,000 pounds) of fish from Santiago, Chile, to Miami. Apparently there is no smell involved. The lift is possible because of the astounding operating weights for the 8F. Max takeoff weight is 987,000 pounds — that's close to a million. You need a long haul ahead because the max landing weight is 763,000 pounds, requiring a burn of 33,000 gallons of jet-A. These are some numbers that require a double take.

The logistics and regulatory obstacles to operating a worldwide freight/passenger operation blur the mind. You are going to end up in some dicey places and security will be an issue. In some places personal security details ferry crews to secure hotels. In those places and others the airplanes need to be guarded too. You want to fly over Kazakhstan? Then there is Dale Glasco, who does nothing but get over-flight and landing permits. He is said to have the worst job at Atlas, but some photos on his desk show a robust family enjoying charter jet vacations — it can't be all that bad. Going to an unusual airport? There's a full-time charter support staff devoted to updating airport information, approaches, services, customs, local quirks and the best ­places to get a meal.

Atlas has its own route authority to South America, and this is a favorite trip of the pilots I met. The flight from Miami to Manaus in Brazil to Quito, Ecuador, and back home takes three days and gets everybody a takeoff and landing. Atlas operates four large cargo freighters (LCFs), "Dreamlifters," for Boeing. Boasting the largest cargo hold of any airplane, they pick up parts all over the world (from Italy to Japan) and bring them to the United States for assembly into the 787 Dreamliner. It must be comforting to be flying along in your huge 747 and know you've got a spare wing and some engines back there if you need them.

Atlas operates the Houston Express Service to Luanda for Sonangol, the national oil company of Angola. These 747s carry only 189 passengers in a first-class and business configuration. There are a few coach seats in the back that let you know you are in the doghouse. These three weekly flights operate as SonAir and transport members of the United States-Africa Energy Association (USAEA) some 15 hours in palpable comfort.

These first class 747s also do duty as VIP passenger flights for heads of state, sports teams and performers. I'll leave you to guess which Hollywood star rented a round trip from Los Angeles to Sydney so that he and his entourage could celebrate New Year's Eve twice. After the party in Sydney, they gathered themselves together and flew to California in time to usher in the new year again. I'm not sure about the price, but it had to push a half-million dollars.

Atlas operates airplanes dressed up in all sorts of colors under its ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) program. You'll see Atlas aircraft in DHL, Qantas and Etihad colors as they provide lift for some of the world's largest airlines. Seasonally UPS and FedEx turn to Atlas to help with the Christmas rush.

I have long considered that the health of an airline can be gauged by the interest its pilots have in actual flying. On some airlines, pilots seem to be mostly eager to get off the airplane and head to their boats. At others, everybody seems to have an airplane of their own. Atlas is definitely in this category. Richard flies his Commander out of Opa-locka (KOPF) and Joshua has a Debonair based in North Hollywood (KHWO). The vice president of flight ops, Jeff Carlson, owns several J-3 Cubs and has flown some of them to Oshkosh. Imagine the difference in the sight line from the pilot seat.

Transitioning from the massive 747 to a Commander, Debonair or Cub involves more than just power and speed. "It's funny," said Richard. "ATC treats me differently when I am in the 747 as compared to the Commander. I am the same guy, but the controllers are aware of the size and mass of the 747. In the Commander, they have no idea I am a 747 pilot."

Did I mention that Atlas trains the Air Force One crews? That it operates passenger and cargo flights for the U.S. Air Force Mobility Command? Chances are one of the soldiers you know was deployed on Atlas equipment. Humanitarian work comes naturally to Atlas, be it disaster relief or carrying ballots to Katmandu.

When asked about the hardest part of the job, Richard said, "Remembering your hotel room number at the end of a 17-day trip." The most rewarding? "Our crews make decisions. They contribute heavily to the success of our company."

What must it be like, working for a company where one day you could be carrying fish from South America, a week later providing parts for the Dreamliner, and a week after that ferrying a pop star complete with ­entourage to a part of the world you have never seen before? The world would become familiar. Just imagine pushing the power up, hitting the autothrottles and launching almost a million pounds halfway around the world. Some doctor's office.

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Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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