Monday, February 28, 2005

Freight Dog

This is an essay I wrote several years back, when I was flying for a small freight company, but was never published.

What do you do when you’re tired and bored? Watch TV? Listen to music? Just go to sleep?

Sleep is exactly what I need right now, but it’s not an option. I glance at my DME – I’m 15 miles past Avenal. That makes it about 160 miles to Oakland, right? About an hour to go. It’s 3:30AM, so I’ve only been flying for an hour. It feels a lot longer than that. The altitude probably doesn’t help the sleepiness. I’m almost two miles over the central valley of California.

Directly behind my seat is 1300 pounds of cancelled checks in 135 cloth bags. Across the nation, there are hundreds of planes clawing their ways through the darkened skies hauling the exact same cargo. Except for the sleep-deprived few who make their living this way, nobody really ever thinks about the massive amount of bank paperwork that needs to get from Point A to Point B every night, and how it gets there.

Earlier today you cashed a check from your friend in Stockton. Near the end of the day, a courier driving a battered ’89 Dodge pickup truck stopped at your bank and picked up several bags of cancelled checks, including the one you cashed. He drove these to a distribution center, where it was determined that certain checks needed to go to Stockton via Oakland. At about 2AM, workers loaded hundreds of these Oakland-bound bags into a white Ford cargo van, which then drove to the Burbank airport. Your check is now sitting right behind my seat, secure under a cargo net. After it gets to Oakland, another courier will take it to Stockton, where it will be delivered to your uncle’s bank. It absolutely, positively needs to be there overnight – or the bank loses money.

At this time of night, the skies are pretty quiet. I look outside for other aircraft but don’t see any. The radio frequency has been silent for the past ten minutes. The only people flying are the “freight dogs,” and we don’t say much. The air traffic controllers on duty at night seem to reciprocate; they say nothing more than is necessary. The last transmission I heard from Oakland Center was just to acknowledge when I “checked on” to her frequency. I wonder what she’s doing to keep herself awake. She probably has more options than I do at the moment.

Freight flying has a strange rhythm. It’s hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of frenzied activity. In Burbank, I patiently waited for my cargo by reading an old newspaper and sipping stale coffee. It finally showed up after 2 hours – over an hour late. The next five minutes was a brilliant explosion of energy: four people heaving, dodging, sweating, swearing, stacking, panting, stepping on each other to throw 1300 pounds of checks into my airplane. Two quick signatures, strap down the cargo, and I’m off. Starting the engines, copying my clearance, taxiing to the runway, reading checklists; ready to go? Throttles up and 620 horsepower strains to accelerate the heavy laden ship. There’s flying speed; ease back on the control wheel and she groans into the air. We’re heavy tonight, and a little unstable. I trim her up, check in with So Cal Departure, read my climb checklist, and sink into my seat with a heavy sigh. Darkness envelops the aircraft as we leave behind the neon glow of LA. The adrenaline slowly drips back down through my veins.

Now, an hour later, I fight to keep myself alert. Contrary to films such as “Airplane!,” airplanes tend to be pretty stable; keeping them straight and level is simple work that doesn’t lend itself to keeping a tired pilot awake. I look outside at the stars; they sure are bright tonight. I turn the panel lights down low and crane my neck to see Orion in the eastern sky. Away from the lights of LA and above most pollution, you can see every detail. Beautiful. I peer down at the sleeping world below. The Tule fog has enshrouded the entire central valley; the lights of each city cast a warm orange glow through the overcast. Bakersfield and Fresno shine brightly, a friendly and inviting sight, but I know the fog is too thick to land in. If I have a problem, I’ll have to turn left and head for the coast. San Luis Obispo and Monterey are clear tonight.

I never really thought I’d be flying freight. Only two years ago, the aviation industry was still booming and it looked like I was next in line for a commuter airline job. In fact, due to FAA regulations, it was easier to get a job as a first officer with a regional airline than it was to become a poorly-paid, sleep-deprived freight dog. Then came September 11th and its aftermath for the aviation industry. Thousands of airline pilots are out of work, and jobs of any sort can be hard to come by. When the cargo-flying opportunity came up, I jumped at it. If the war drags on or we are attacked again, the industry will be devastated – and flying jobs will become even scarcer. Being a freight dog is certainly preferable to being unemployed. The pay and lifestyle leave something to be desired, but it’s valuable experience for a young pilot. When the industry recovers, it is experience that will serve me well.

Time to turn the lights back on and check on my progress. 20 miles to Panoche – I’m still 120 miles out from Oakland. Things should start to get busier in another 20 minutes. Just need to find something to do until then. I force my mind to stay active by solving mental math problems. Contrary to conventional opinion, you don’t need to be a math whiz to be a pilot. There’s no algebra involved, no trig, certainly no calculus. A knack for simple mental math, on the other hand, can be a useful thing. I think about the engine out there to my left, 310 turbocharged horsepower just purring long. It’s turning at 2400 revolutions per minute; the intake valve on each of the six cylinders opens 1200 times during that minute. The engine is consuming 16 gallons of fuel per hour. How much fuel does the intake valve let into the cylinder each time it opens? By the time I decide it’s around 3 ten-thousandths of a pint, I’m just past Panoche. Stockton Approach radios for me to descend to 8000 feet.

The arrival is like the departure in reverse. As I get closer, the number of tasks at hand steadily increases. It’s a welcome change – I’m tired enough now that without some action, it’d definitely be a fight to stay awake. There’s a broken layer of low clouds over Oakland, so the air traffic controller directs me to an instrument approach for runway 27R. As I break out of the clouds, I am treated to a very nice view of the lights of San Francisco sparkling across the bay, the Bay Bridge alive with early morning traffic, and the approach lights at Oakland beckoning me home. No time to gawk – I bring the throttles to idle and ease back on the control yoke, mindful of the instability that a heavy load in back will bring. I anticipate a nice “chirp” and instead get a muffled “thud.” Not my nicest landing, but not a bad one either. I’m just relieved to be back on the ground. The hotel is but a short van ride away.

But there’s still work to be done. The courier is already waiting as I shut down the engines. Suddenly it’s another sweating, twisting, panting symphony of frenzied chaos as I hurl 135 bags out of my airplane and into the van. It takes under 5 minutes, but my muscles ache as the courier takes off across the ramp, leaving me in silence to collect my things and tidy up the airplane. I’m not that tired anymore. The adrenaline is flowing again and the eastern sky is getting light. When I get back over to the hotel, I’ll eat some breakfast and read the Wall Street Journal and ponder the flight for almost an hour. Finally, the tiredness will return, and I’ll collapse into bed.

Despite making good time between Burbank and Oakland, we were late. The cargo was late getting to the plane in Burbank, and that meant it got to Oakland an hour after the bank needed it. That cost the bank money, and they’re not too happy about it. After I wake up today I’ll find out that my company lost the Oakland contract, and I won’t be flying this run anymore. Tonight I’ll be flying the plane back to Southern California, empty this time. Aviation can be such a brutish business; it’s a constant struggle to survive for company and employee alike.

The public image of the well-groomed professional pilot in his crisp uniform making $300,000 a year to guide wide body jets to exotic places is just plain wrong. Most of us are guys and gals struggling from paycheck to paycheck, getting sweaty and sore and tired and dirty in the middle of the night while America sleeps. Would I choose this career again, knowing now what it’s really like? Without a doubt. Interspersed with times of boredom and tiredness are moments of incredible beauty and immeasurable satisfaction: Vapor trails from my wings shining in the moonlight; breaking out of the clouds after a tough approach to find the inviting lights of an airport; the snow-covered Sierras gleaming in the early morning light. These are the things I’ll remember about this job forever. That was was really flying, I'll think. That’s what I became a pilot for.
In retrospect, airline flying is a ridiculously easy job compared to flying freight. I retain a fascination with the Part 135 cargo industry and the pilots who do it. They're an interesting lot I'll likely write more about in the future.

9 comments:

The Pelican said...

You sound like a fellow Ameriflight survivor. My freight dog life seems like an eternity ago!

Christina Nikolov said...

I have 1135 hours total time, 7 hours multi-engine, 90 hours instrument, 425 cross country, 600 dual given as a flight instructor. If I wish to build multi-engine PIC time, what is my best option for doing so? Are there any companies within commuting distance of White Plains, NY or St. Petersburg, FL flying freight, etc.? How can I get some good multi-engine or turbine experience? Any career leads would be greatly appreciated, so please e-mail me at cnikolov@earthlink.net in addition to posting a reply here. That way you are sure I get the message, just in case I misplace the link to this blog. Thanks. Christina Nikolov

Conor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conor said...

I'm a high school student and a Private Pilot and am starting work on my CPL/IFR rating. From your mini-bio it appears to me as if you're living my life for me :) I'm looking at flight instructing for a bit, maybe freight doggin' and eventually I'd like to end up with a regional. What have been your biggest obstacles in getting to where you are now, and what part of your flying career do you think was/is the most rewarding?

I love your blog by the way, I'm glad there are still some pilots out there who fly for enjoyment, not just for the money. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Sam:

Also at our "regional" in MSP. XNWA mech. turned Connie freight dog 74 mech...what a ride..miss it but glad to not living out of a suitcase either. NEW respect and understanding of pilots..BIG TIME!! cassininasa@earthlink.net hope to see you "out there!"

Chris

Taylor said...

Just stumbled onto this blog doing some research on freight dogs. Just wanted to say it's a beautiful essay.

Anonymous said...

Great little essay, please keep them coming. beautiful closing...

Paul-J. said...

nothing beats a nice looking stewardess bringing you coffee at fl.400.....keep up the work boys and you end up there...

MarkeyMarkBeaty said...

My brother is aspiring to be a photographer, and I was just looking at a link he posted on his blog, that sent me to a professional photographers blog. The pro put up some really cool stuff that I could tell really inspired my brother.

I just got accepted to UND for a degree in commercial aviation, but I didn't feel as excited about it as I should... So I went to look for my own source of inspiration - and this is where I found it.

I look forward to reading the rest of the blog - thank you for doing what you do!