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ironbird26 9th Sep 2015 13:40

The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Cargo Pilot
I am fascinated by the life of a cargo pilot and was hoping someone could answer some questions?

1) Do cargo pilots ever call home to their families during flight and is it true all planes have a "phone number"?
2) How does the atmosphere in a cargo cockpit differ from passenger flight?
3) Do any pilots prefer flying cargo to passengers and if so, why?

Thanks in advance,


perantau 9th Sep 2015 14:54

#3 - no no-shows, air rage & not having to worry about the seatbelts sign switch :)

Flying Mechanic 9th Sep 2015 15:49

1. No, Not in my day , I flew a heavy freighter until 2008, things might of changed.
2. Great atmosphere , no need to wear uniform, remember freight never complains, freight does not know if it's late, hot or cold. If your freighter breaks down , you just head to the hotel.
3.same reasons as above, I miss my freights day, great layovers in PANC.
Saying that I like my salary now on the biz jet I fly.
They were good days.

ironbird26 9th Sep 2015 16:01

Thanks FlyingMechanic. And would you tend to fly with the same co-pilot a lot? Or was it always someone different.

And would you ever go back in to the hold during flight to inspect the cargo?

And what was the strangest/ most peculiar cargo you ever flew?

RandomPerson8008 10th Sep 2015 09:14

This is my favorite quote about the life: "You'll make enough to get by, but if you should ever meet someone and get married, which frankly is going to be damn near impossible being gone so much, you won't be making enough to fully support a family. Your spouse will be a de facto single parent most of the time, and that will always be a source of friction in your life. So, in addition to accelerated aging due to the inhuman schedule, dying of cancer early due to increased radiation exposure from spending 1000+ hours a year in the upper atmosphere, you can also suffer alone due to lack any lasting human relationships beyond what you can rent in Wan Chai."

1) No, we aren't allowed to use the SATCOM to call anyone but the company or air traffic control due to costs. Yes, it is possible to call anyone on a plane with SATCOM, which most have these days. I don't know what kind of equipment it takes to call the plane, as I'm only ever on the receiving end of the call.

2) It's really not much different at all. There is less stress about delays on freighters. There is slightly more work on a freighter as we are responsible for checking main deck cargo security prior to departure whweras on a pax flight the f/a's would take care of that part of the airplane. On the other hand there are PA's to make and a few other human comfort items to consider on pax flights.

3) As someone who flies mostly freighters but occasionally passengers, I really have no strong preference. Most pilots where I work prefer freight but some prefer pax. The pay is the same either way. I have a slight preference for freight because I enjoy the independence of going to the lav and making my own coffee without being babysat. No, we don't go to the main deck (cargo area) in flight because it is forbidden by policy.

ironbird26 10th Sep 2015 12:19

Thanks RandomPerson, very helpful.

Flying Mechanic 10th Sep 2015 12:35

I was a co pilot back then, we used to fly with different a captains , occasionally paired up with some captains on a ten day pattern.

If there was something interesting in the back like cars and horses, always go and have a look.

Cliff Secord 10th Sep 2015 13:10


I've not heard of Satcom ever being used to call home for chats. Costs a fortune to use and you'd get in bother using it for personal use. You wouldn't want to anyway. Skype in the hotel is easy and free. You've got e mail etc.

The atmos depends on the company I suppose. Places I've been haven't been much different to the pax operators. Friendly and relaxed, just as professional. On the rare occasion you fly with someone who isn't a great character fit with yourself trips can be a bit longer mentally. If you're heavy crewed you sometimes get a few hours down back to sleep in the bunks, mooch about or watch a program/film on the iPad if you can't sleep. Anything to try and rest.

The grooms go downstairs onto the main deck in flight to check horses. They're supposed to carry bottles and tell the crew.

Long haul freight is a bit like a cross between being submarine crew/being on a supertanker and flying. You can be away loooong spells, spending hours in a cramped upper deck with fellow crew/grooms with a self service galley and some bunks. If you were suddenly taken to a freighter upper deck mid flight from a pax cabin it would seem very different in that regard. Interspersed with being parachuted into many countries and cultures, your world becomes an endless stream of meeting agents that whisk you through confusing immigration clutching gen decs at odd little airports in strange places before being transported to a hotel and then going to bed after breakfast.

The rolling jet lag with back of the clock flights can leave you mid trip all of a sudden feeling like you've been away months (when it maybe a week) and not quite knowing which planet you're on. Jet lag and tiredness is one thing that unites the crews. We all appreciate it and on the occasion when you're at a station where there maybe a few crews in the place no one is suprised if a few don't show up in the evening as arranged. Everyone's body is telling them it's different times.

Good camaraderie on layovers if a bunch of you. Sometimes though if just 2 of you for whole trip it's vital to get a bit of downtown on your own. Interesting you mention loneliness. Even if you're out socialising with crews when not asleep the job can feel very lonely on occasion. It's easy to feel detached from life. You come home and alsorts has happened whilst you've been away. No one understands, unless they've done it how knackered you are and that you just want to not go anywhere for a few days, instead potter in the garden etc. Friends outside of the industry will never understand it. They think being away 14 days is like them working 14 days in their day job and why don't you want to head out the weekend you're back, stay over at theirs and have a busy weekend? It takes careful managing of friendships and relationships.

There's many highs, and lots of lows. I don't care what I fly anymore but for me what's important is lifestyle, how well I'm paid and how I'm treated by my company.

ironbird26 10th Sep 2015 14:01

Thanks Cliff for your in depth response. A very interesting account and much appreciated.

dusk2dawn 11th Sep 2015 08:24

what's important is lifestyle, how well I'm paid and how I'm treated by my company

(but avoid passengers if possible)

fabvirgil 11th Sep 2015 17:14

Cliff Secord, has pretty well summed it up perfectly.

Having flown both freight and cargo for a couple of Asian airlines, the locals tended to prioritise towards pax ops as they liked being seen in the shiny gold plated uniforms! Expats tended to like the flexibility of cargo flights!

With regards to SATCOM when on a training flight I always allow my trainee to call home on SATCOM 'once' so that they can see how it works when having to manually input a phone number......the smile and CRM is so worth it after they've had a brief chat with their loved ones from 35000 feet over some remote area.

Often freighter ops require you to be on a rotation which could last a couple of weeks....as mine is now....forget CRM, psychoanalysis of each other is probably more useful! Weird hours...weirder food, 'often', strange layovers....you need to respect each other's need for 'down-time' but the camaraderie is second to none....however, after a couple of weeks on the road, trying to explain to your other half that you need female companionship as you're fed up with a totally male orientated environment does raise the odd (manicured) eyebrow!

Yes pax can be a pain.....but I tend to '***e' over my lithium batteries and make sure they are well cared for more than I ever did for any First Class passenger....especially when the OAT is forty plus while they are being loaded/prepared.

I thought I was the only one to have called the hotel reception, saying yes I know it's 6:00 but is that am or pm....days before mobile phones and iPads! But I still have conversations with my copilot and taxi drivers as to what day of the week it is....too often these days.....however, I always know exactly how many days it is to the next payday!

Freight dog or passenger wh**e....well for me now it has to be freight dog. Sat in my seat in my boxers and T-shirt with my feet in a bucket of ice because the APU isn't working and the OAT is trying to nudge 50.....nobody bats an eye as a freight dog.......but I think my pax would have something to say!

So maybe it's horses for courses....but me its dogging all the way.....that's freight dogging by the way!

safelife 11th Sep 2015 19:03

Just for the record, satcom calls are between 69 cent and 1,29 EUR per minute, which I wouldn't call a forture.
If your company pays much more, you're signed up for a rip off.
Still not allowed to call home, though.

Cliff Secord 11th Sep 2015 20:44

One mans fortune is another mans non fortune. It's not a fortune if used as intended. If used like a home phone it's a fortune. A 1 hour personal chat is 77 euro. I'd call that a fortune if it cropped up on my phone bill. Especially as you can use Skype, FaceTime etc for free only a few hours later.

LW20 13th Sep 2015 22:08

I think the loneliness does not come from the fact that you are only two people on board of the aircraft. In my opinion the different rosters make the difference.

With us the cargo rosters are much longer, and bring you to much more "remote" places than the passengers flights do.

i.e.: Pax flights go from homebase to your destination and one or two days later back home. So usually after 3 to 5 days you are back home.

Cargo roster may give you five different layovers resulting in rotations of up to 10 or 12 days. And, very important, the cargo schedule is not as stable as for the pax flights. Sometimes you come home a few days later, because there was not enough freight on the originally planned day.

JohnGalt 14th Sep 2015 00:20

Fagvirgil and Cliff Secord have given you a good overview of a long-distance cargo pilot.

I'm retired now' but pushed a C5 and 747 thru the skies for 37 yrs --- 90% of the flights were over the Pacific, North Atlantic, or to South America.

Almost all my flights were with a 3rd pilot, or double crew (4 pilots). On a typical 747-400 flight from ORD to NRT (about 12-13 hours) with 4 pilots, we would split the duty and have a "shift change" over Alaska (6 hrs each). Samo, samo on 14-15 hr flights from LAX to SYD (or HKG), shift change at halfway point.

To while away the hours in the seat while boring a hole thru the sky, I would read --- same on 1-5 day layovers in some hotel. Always carried 5-6 books on each 14 day sequence.

Never flew pax, but we would dress up and look spiffy like an airline pilot from hotel to plane, vice versa. Once on the plane, uniform would come off, replaced by sweat pants/shirts and, for me, bedroom slippers. Before landing, we would re-dress and look professional again.

Don't know if the above has changed much, but that is how was for me for 37 yrs.

Best wishes for a rewarding flying career

TowerDog 14th Sep 2015 01:27

Prefer cargo, more $$, less stress.
Sometimes the company would give us portable sat-phones that would work from inside the plane if sitting next to an upper deck window facing the nearest satellite. In the old days we could phone patch from HF to a home phone, so yes we could call home from anywhere but rarely did.

Atmosphere on a cargo plane? More cigarette smoke in the air perhaps...
Yes, many a times we could go back and check on the cargo, if there was a good reason for it: Strange smell or strange noise. :sad:

halas 14th Sep 2015 17:19

In this outfit the freighter flights only last up to ten days.
Some of the flight pairings are contractually scheduled whilst others (including connections to the CS flights) are ad hoc with many changes or cancelations.
These flights are all over the world but only a few over the Pacific.

Many crew don't like the freighter due to the time away or the changes and cancellations. As cargo is only 8% of our scheduled ops, it's not too hard to avoid.

Personally l like the trips. Out of town for ten days. Most of the fellow crew are out for a good time and are usually good company in the flight deck. No need for novels.
Plus the challenges of changed duties, destinations and delays make for colourful phone conversations with flight ops and crew control.

Never ever thought about using sat phone to call home. Mogadishu though is on speed dial.

With a bit of input, the catering is what you want and as was said before, no one is nannying you for toilet breaks and coffee.
Plus 99% of the time the toilet seat remains up.

Bunks are comfy and quiet and well used.

Occasionally joined by a load master and/or engineer depending on how remote the destination is. Always learn something from these guys when you have several hours together. Them too.


breakadjuster 16th Sep 2015 16:05

Flew for KLM as a Flight Engineer 10 years ago, always phoned home from flight deck when I got bored or when overhead our house in the UK coming back to Amsterdam, to let my wife know what time I would be home. company to big to notice phone calls!!!

Uniform off once on board and on again post landing...always looked smarter than pax crew!

Easier to get your head down during cruise.

Last never had the us and them mentality or petty flight crew jealousy's from the cabin crew(Males).!!!

L-38 18th Sep 2015 08:48

For me, living the freight dog life was living a life in its most pure form. The only thing I had to do or decide for myself was to put on my own pants, and decide on what to have for dinner. Everything else was either pre-arranged or done for me. . . I was told when to sleep and told to wake up. I was driven directly to my airplane's stairs, then driven directly to the hotel when at destination. I did not have to wash dishes, make a bed, or gas a car . . . no bills in the mail to fetch or complaints to listen too. . . life was pure.

Airclues 19th Sep 2015 08:54

The life of a cargo pilot;


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