Life as a Cargo Pilot- Freight Dog

After working as a flight attendant (while completing my pilot training) I assumed I had an in depth understanding of airline life. I was only partly correct- although I was knowledgeable about passenger operations, I had never delved into the world of cargo.

John opened my eyes to the cargo world. Through him, I realized it's possible to choose to only fly cargo as a career and that there are some airlines dedicated entirely to cargo operations. These pilots have a unique airline experience since their lives certainly aren't the most glamorous- they're familiar with the parking in furthest corners of each airport and regularly walk through empty terminals in the middle of the night. So, they have affectionately earned the name 'freight dogs.'

Despite the unglamorous lifestyle, this job is a hidden gem in the aviation world.

I decided to interview John to share what I have learnt about the freight dog lifestyle, and to highlight why you should consider this for your career.

For now, let's dive into John's piloting story and how it brought him to become a Boeing 737 cargo pilot. I went with him on a flight to Geneva to see first hand how cargo life differs from passenger operations.

I flew with John to Geneva in a B737 Classic to learn about cargo operations for this interview.

1) Why did you decide to fly cargo instead of passengers? 

My search for the perfect pilot job has always been an interesting endeavor because I am passionate about aviation. More specifically, I am passionate about the art of hand-flying an aircraft and the skill set involved in doing this proficiently. This search was made even more interesting by the fact that I want to fly everything from small piston aircraft, aerobatic aircraft, turboprops, old timers, warbirds all the way to modern big jets. I realized the best way forward was to find a job which would give me the opportunity to combine as much of this as possible.

I always knew that I would not feel fulfilled in the typical passenger operations where you fly mainly a few routes from your home base, doing 4 sectors a day, with a fixed 5 on and 3 or 4 off roster pattern in a highly controlled environment relying heavily on automation of flight to complete the missions. I needed something more exciting for my job which would also give me more time to pursue the other flying that I want to do.

I found the answer in my current job- flying Boeing 737 cargo operations on a very extensive European network. Since we fly mostly at night, doing layovers in different destinations in Europe, we are quite restricted with the amount of flying we are able to do, so we end up flying about 6-10 days a month. On top of that, the company I work for encourages us to fly manually as much as we are comfortable with in order to maintain our 'stick and rudder' skills. I would say on average I do a full raw data approach every 2 or 3 flights, sometimes even doing this from the top of descent. As a comparison, raw data approaches are forbidden in most airlines…

To add to this, since we do day stops (sometimes even 36 hours or full weekend layovers) we get to actually visit the places we fly to, and not just land, swap passengers and head back home. There is also a huge camaraderie among the pilots in the company and up until now, I have only flown with great people!

So, all of this combined, I felt like it was the perfect job that would keep me excited about flying and from which I could pursue my other flying interests. I will soon start instructing again on small aircraft, this time as a side activity to my 737 gig, and my next project will be to work on getting my aerobatics rating!

2) Why is cargo normally flown at night?

There are a few reasons but mainly because the packages, letters, and other things we transport are collected from the sender during the day, brought to the airport by truck in the evening, sorted and then loaded on the aircraft. The objective is for the cargo to arrive at destination in the early hours of the morning so it can again be sorted and then delivered to the customer that day.

3) How do you cope with night flying?

Rock climbing is great exercise to cope with fatigue.

At first, I thought getting up at 1:30 am to start my day of work was going to be the most challenging, but I quickly realized that fatigue management is by far the most challenging part of night flying. On duty days it is difficult to get more than 4-5 hours of sleep in a row, so you often find yourself having short naps where you can, trying to supplement your sleep and avoid getting fatigued.

You need to plan your sleep schedule quite well and try to stick to it, especially the evening before your flight where you will typically get 2-3 hours sleep before having to wake up and leave for the airport. But, as we know in life things don’t always go as planned… It is therefore crucial to quickly find your own personal rhythm to deal with it so you can be as alert as possible when on duty.

Fatigue management extends to off days as well. Eating healthy foods and regular exercise are both strategies to cope in the long run. Luckily I have had a passion for rock climbing for several years, so climbing regularly helps me with the challenge of night flights.

4) What is the main difference between the job of cargo and passenger pilots?

In terms of the operations of the aircraft there is not much difference, we just have a big cargo door in the front of the main section where passengers would normally be sitting, which one of the pilots needs to open and close through a dedicated hydraulic system in the forward galley.

The main cargo deck where passengers would normally be seated.

Since we transport a huge cargo payload and therefore a lot more dangerous goods than in a passenger aircraft, we have a fire suppression system for the main deck unique to cargo aircraft. The reason for this is to attempt to extinguish a fire in the main cargo deck, not by spraying fire extinguishing agents, but by decompressing the aircraft with the flip of a switch in the cockpit, which immediately eliminates the oxygen needed to sustain the fire. I would say it’s the only real difference. Besides, of course, the fact that we don’t have passengers and cabin crew on-board which eliminates the extra procedures and potential emergencies linked with this.

Outside of this it is drastically different. As mentioned before, we fly at night where most short and medium haul passenger operations are flown during the day. It is not as glamorous because you don’t walk through the airport terminal in your pilot uniform accompanied by cabin crew, which for some is part of the appeal of being an airline pilot. Instead you get dropped off at the 'other side' of the airport where the cargo operations are, generally walk through a small security check point and then go straight to your aircraft. The environment on the ground is also a lot noisier with the movement and loading of all the cargo.

We have certain flights unique to cargo operations that are treated as 'in-flight standby'. This means that for a trip from point A to B, you could, while in the cruise for example, be asked to divert to another airport to pick up some cargo. These flights add another layer of excitement to the job- during the pre-flight preparation we prepare the flight to our intended destination as usual, but we also have to consider all sorts of options and weather conditions in several other places in anticipation of a possible diversion mid-flight to another airport somewhere else in Europe before heading to the final destination again.

We also fly much older aircraft which have been converted from passenger to cargo configuration, and definitely don’t have the newest and fanciest avionics and systems. To put it into perspective, the Boeing 737-800 first entered service in 1998, but the cargo converted B737-800 was only launched in 2018! So for us, a 20 year old aircraft is nearly a new one.

I’m sure cargo flying is not for everyone, but I really enjoy it and if you like being on the more 'rustic' and 'old-school' side of things, you’ll really enjoy it too!

5) What is the strangest cargo you have flown?

I haven't flown any 'unique' cargo yet but since we do quite a bit of contract flying it will definitely happen soon. I think the most unique cargo that I could end up flying is live animals, and more specifically race horses. We are certified for and equipped to transport horses in our 737 aircraft. Since they are live animals and not normal cargo or passengers (and worth a huge amount of money!), we have a whole set of procedures dedicated to our horse charter flights.

The reason for this is to make the flight as uneventful and stress free as possible for the horses. I think it could be a really cool experience! It will feel more like flying VIP passengers due to the special attention you need to give to them before, during and after the flight.

6) What are your layovers generally like?

There are 3 types of layovers:

A) Most of our layovers are what we call day stops: we land at around 7-8am, are transported to the hotel, have breakfast and then by 9-10am are in our beds. On average I’ll sleep until 2pm, which leaves me with approximately 5 hours before we leave for the airport. I make a point of visiting the city, even if it's just to walk around for an hour or so, or I make use of the hotel facilities (gym, swimming pool, spa...)

Sometimes we are lucky. For example, during my flight last week to Gdansk, where the hotel is on the beach, so I was able to spend 4 hours sun tanning and swimming in the sea! Activities like this (and not just staying in my hotel room) also helps keep me active and better manage my fatigue in the long run.

The crew will then normally meet for dinner about 2 hours before pick up time which is often around 7-8pm.

B) We also have 1 and a half day layovers: these are for our longer flights (for example, flying to Larnaca in Cyprus). Due to the longer duty time to get to these destinations we require a longer rest period and are therefore legally not allowed to fly back the same evening, so another set of crew flies back instead and we return the following evening.

C) A few destinations have what we call weekend stops: basically a 3 or 4 day layover over the weekend. This is generally for operational reasons due to the freight not being available to fly back until the beginning of the following week. So, instead of flying back empty it is more economically (and environmentally!) viable for us to stay there for the weekend until we have freight to load into the aircraft again. These are really fun because it is like having a mini holiday partially paid for by the company!

John admiring the view of Lake Geneva during his first weekend stop in Switzerland.

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The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.