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A Day in the Life: International Cargo Pilot

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Yes, it’s true. Long-haul cargo pilots fly in their pajamas!

This was one of the things that came as a surprise to me, having built my hours flying for regional passenger airlines. I mean, it makes perfect sense, right? The boxes aren’t going to be offended by what you wear, and 12+ hours is a LONG time to be wearing your uniform (as any passenger pilot will affirm)!

Long-haul cargo flying is its own kind of animal and, in my humble opinion, the best kind of flying. Sure, the hours can be late, the flights lengthy, and the trips long, but what other job will allow you to visit Japan, China, India, and Europe all in the course of a week or two? And one benefit to working two weeks straight is, afterward, you get two weeks off!

Today's Route

One route I operate frequently is from China to Germany. It’s a pretty long flight, about 13 hours, which requires four pilots. These “augmented” crews normally consist of one Captain, one First Officer and two Relief First Officers (RFOs). Actually, being an RFO is a pretty sweet gig! RFOs are only required for flights over 8 hours and often need to be repositioned for their next flight via commercial airlines. I once had the fortune to ride First Class in an Emirates A380 from Dubai to Hong Kong. Have you ever taken a shower at 35,000 feet? THAT is living, my friends!

My 1 a.m. Wakeup Call

Continuing with our flight from China to Germany, it’s an early morning. We receive a wakeup call one hour prior to our transportation to the airport, around 1 a.m. The crew meets in the hotel lobby a little before 2 a.m. to make introductions (RFOs usually fly with a new crew every flight leg), check out of our rooms, and hop into the car to the airport — about a 45-minute drive. We arrive at the airport approximately one hour before departure time.

Once we get to the airplane, the Captain and First Officer get to work in the flight deck while the RFOs split the preflight duties; one conducts the external preflight inspection, while the other checks the interior. The size of these airplanes continues to amaze me — wheels nearly as tall as I am, engines large enough to fit the fuselage of a regional jet clean through, and a fuel capacity greater than the total weight of a fully-loaded Boeing 737. Impressive to say the least!

The interior has everything we need for our voyage – plenty of catering, an oven, TWO coffee makers (because a freight dog can never have too much coffee), and a closet in which bunk beds are located for crew rest breaks. That’s right – we get PAID to sleep on the job! Pretty cool, huh?

The On-Time Departure

With the preflight complete and cargo loaded, we’re ready to go! All crewmembers sit in the flight deck for taxi and takeoff, which is especially helpful when taxiing around airports in a foreign country. Foreign Air Traffic Controllers often speak to other airlines in their native language, and when they speak to us in English, it can be very difficult to understand! Some airports have adopted a “follow the greens” system, where you simply follow the in-ground green taxiway lights to your destination. It couldn’t be easier!

Upon passing 10,000 feet, it’s pajama time! Everyone settles in for the long flight, and two pilots will head back to the bunk for some rest. The rest schedule can vary depending on the flight and personal preference, but often there will be four rest periods total – perhaps two short and two long. For a flight of this length, it’s not unusual for the RFOs to start with a short rest of approximately two hours. They will then take over flight duties while the Captain and First Officer take a longer four-hour rest. Then RFOs will get four hours of rest, followed by two hours for the Captain and First Officer. There are some unfortunate folks who have a hard time sleeping on airplanes, even with the private bunk – but for those who can sleep, a long flight like this can pass pretty quickly.

There's Plenty to See Along the Way!

China is a really interesting country to fly over. Our route will take us just south of the border of Mongolia where you can see part of the Gobi Desert – it almost looks like the surface of Mars. You think, “surely NOBODY lives down there,” but sure enough, there are settlements and roads scattered throughout. It’s flights like these where I feel fortunate to be flying cargo — chances are, if I had gone to a passenger carrier, I would never have seen this part of the world.

Eventually the desert gives way to an impressively tall mountain range known as the Himalayas. This is the L888 airway, where the mountains are so high that if you were to have an engine failure, you would not be able to maintain sufficient altitude to clear them! Luckily there are escape routes published to remain clear should the worst come to pass, but you need to remain vigilant through this section and update your backup plan as you progress along the route.

The mountains and desert slowly morph into greener terrain as you pass through Kazakhstan. You’ll see Moscow to your right as you pass over Russia and into Belarus. When you check on with Warsaw Air Traffic Control, you know you’re getting close. Everyone dons their uniforms and perhaps gets a last quick bite to eat before things get busy with preparation for our arrival in Germany. The countryside is gorgeous in the late morning and any history buff will have a hard time not imagining what it must have looked like during the World War II era.

Time to Wind Down

After landing, it’s a quick taxi to our parking spot where a van is waiting to take us to the hotel. Germany layovers are a favorite for most crews; the food and drink options are good and plentiful, there are trails along The Rhine to walk or run, and if you have a couple days on the ground (it is not uncommon to have two or more days between flights), you can take a train elsewhere and explore what Europe has to offer!

As we deplane our aircraft, it’s always fun to look back at this massive machine and consider how it just moved our crew thousands of miles over the course of 13 hours without issue. Even though we're often tired and ready for a nice mattress, in two hours that machine will be airborne, doing it all over again!

Parting Thoughts

As you progress along your career, I hope you will give some consideration to cargo aviation. It has been said that there is something for everyone in cargo flying – short hauls, long hauls, day flying, and night flying. You might choose a schedule where you work two weeks straight and then have the rest of the month off; or you may choose a schedule where you fly to your hometown every night and sleep in your own bed. The options are limitless! And it’s a whole lot of fun.

See you up there,

Jason Smith

First Officer

International Widebody Cargo

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