Unboxing Cargo: The Life of a Freight Pilot

By: Joey Newton

Aviation is a career field with countless opportunities. Pilots can choose to fly light sport aircraft, helicopters, crop dusters, fighter jets or B1 Bombers. While many pilots are already familiar with the opportunities available as a passenger pilot in the regional and major airlines, there is another sector of civilian aviation that is a little less known and regarded as a well kept secret - cargo.

I had the opportunity to catch up with some current and retired freight pilots and former Army Aviators who fly and have flown for cargo operators to find out what makes the life of a “freight dog” different.

United Parcel Service (UPS) has been around since 1907, but the cargo airline arm of the company was formed in 1988. Bob Thrush has been with UPS for most of that time and recently retired after 32 years with the company as a 747-400 Captain. While cargo may seem less glamorous to some at first glance, the stability and global need for cargo is hard to deny.

"Passenger airlines rely exclusively on paying customers to buy tickets, but when passengers don’t need to or are unable to travel, such as during a pandemic, the entire business model is affected,” says Thrush.

"No matter how bad it gets, people will always need things - medicine, supplies, toilet paper - and that’s what makes flying cargo different.” During the pandemic, UPS grew substantially, as did another cargo air carrier, Air Transport International.

Barry Pfeifer is a former AH-64 pilot and has been with ATI since 2019. Pfeifer said “The pandemic felt like the busy holiday season all year long. Everyone was stuck at home ordering stuff, so we were actually pretty busy during 2020.” Cargo hiring continued and even accelerated in many cases, as demand for products to be delivered quickly, dramatically increased.

Air Transport International is a 121 cargo operator that has been in service since 1979 and operates a fleet of 757s and 767s for a number of customers, including Amazon, the US military, and DHL among others. Pfeifer says that the life of a cargo pilot is slightly different than that of a traditional Part 121 passenger pilot. “With passengers, you’ll occasionally get some that are unruly and need to deplane or medical emergencies that need assistance prior to departure or in flight. Those issues are not a factor when you have only boxes in the back of the aircraft” he says.

In cargo, the pilots are still responsible for preflight and preparing the plane for the flight, but the loadmasters secure the load and provide the weight and balance to the pilots. If everything is completed earlier than scheduled, then an early departure (and arrival) may be possible, making that overnight in Hawaii a little bit longer, or maybe getting home a little sooner at the end of a trip. In the passenger world, flights are tightly scheduled and must adhere to their schedules, so as not to disrupt any connection flights or “flow times” into busy airports that have been assigned by ATC, but cargo can sometimes be a little more flexible.


The work lifestyle also has a different feel, according to Jacob Crossman, a former UH-60 pilot and current pilot with Air Transport International. Crossman enjoys the simplicity of skipping the passenger terminals in the cargo world. “Usually, the crew will link up at the hotel to ride to the airport, walk through the warehouse together, preflight the plane and start the flight for the day. It’s a lot less stressful to avoid the terminals for nearly the entire trip” Crossman says.

Thrush, a former Army AH-1 Cobra pilot, says that traditional cargo carriers, such as UPS, generally fly the majority of their flights at night or early morning in order to get packages to the ground delivery trucks for delivery the following day. “UPS is a ground delivery company that also happens to own an airline” he says, reinforcing the stability narrative.

There are also options for “turn” trips, which are essentially out and back in the same day, allowing for some time at home in the evenings in exchange for early showtimes.

While many of the flights are in the period of darkness, there are exceptions. “For International trips, all bets are off for the time of day you fly. Scheduled time is based on your domicile time, and since you may be on the other side of the globe from your domicile, it could be daytime there while you are flying” Thrush says. ATI flies for Amazon, DHL, and military contracts, making the flying both varied and interesting, according to Pfifer and Crossman. They do a mixture of day and night operations, so while some freight flying is red-eye flights, not all cargo operations are.

Cargo pilots are generally on the road a little bit more for each trip, but this also usually means they have longer periods of time off between trips. ATI pilots can expect to begin with a 16-on/12-off schedule according to ATI’s recruiting team. While the time at work is longer, the longer off periods allows for longer vacations and time at home in one stretch, which many pilots enjoy. At UPS, pilots can use vacation in conjunction with their time off, and can essentially have an entire month off of work while only using two weeks of vacation when they become eligible to do so. “Most of our pilots love the ‘sliding vacation’ benefit.” says Thrush.

By its nature, cargo flying can take its crews to some pretty interesting places worldwide. With ATI, Crossman and Pfifer have visited Sydney, Hong Kong, Ascension Island, and Antigua among other destinations. Thrush says his favorite spots are a tie between Budapest and Madrid. Occasionally, a long layover in these locations allow crew members to get out of the hotel and explore the city and surrounding areas and get to know the city and cultures of the places they happen to be in.

While cargo flying may not be for everyone, it is a great fit for a lot of pilots. Many enjoy the stability of cargo, and the stability was seen firsthand over the previous year during the pandemic. The varied destinations, different payloads, and challenge of flying larger aircraft on domestic and international trips draws in many pilots who are excited for the challenge those things bring. While there usually are no flight benefits as a cargo pilot, reciprocal jumpseat privileges for crew members can be expected with nearly every one of them, making commuting to work still an option for those looking to live outside of their base. Some cargo operators are also able to offer different types of benefits, such as home basing and the ability to keep hotel points and airline miles, which many pilots find to be just as good or better options for their situation. If you think cargo may be a good fit for you, seek out a mentor in a target cargo airline or go speak with a recruiter here at the 2021 RTAG Convention to learn more.

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RTAG is a Veteran run 501(c)(3) non profit organization designed to help all veterans, regardless of experience, jumpstart their post military career in the world of aviation.

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