Most people think of the major and regional airlines when expressing a desire to become a
April 10, 2000
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
When someone says, "commercial
pilot," the first thing the listener thinks of is an air carrier pilot
wearing a blazer with stripes up to his/her elbow. But there are many more
occupations for professional pilots than just flying a human mailing tube, not
least of which are the so-called "freight dogs" the cargo haulers
flying all kinds of equipment in all kinds of weather, day and night.
They range all the way from overnight delivery companies like UPS (United
Parcel Service) and FedEx (Federal Express), which operate large jet transports
configured only for cargo and operating on a regular schedule, to the small
operator with perhaps one single-engine airplane flying small amounts of
material on demand. Additionally, UPS and FedEx as well as other package
express carriers have contracts with independent operators who operate
smaller equipment, such as the Cessna Caravan, which are used in feeder
operations into various hubs around the country.
In today's world with the speed of instantaneous wire transfer, I don't
understand just why it is done, but after every business day is done there are
literally hundreds of airplanes flying around the country picking up and
delivering cancelled checks from banks to the nearest Federal Reserve Bank.
Obviously with millions, even billions of dollars involved, the interest on that
kind of money in a single day becomes an important factor. The vast majority of
this flying is done at night.
These check haulers fly everything from Aerostars to Lears, from Aero
Commanders to Bonanzas to CE 310s and 210s. Many pilots use this job as a
stepping-stone to the carriers. In fact many "freight dogs" who fly
all kinds of cargo are doing so for that reason. It is a great way to build time
in multiengine equipment. And the experienced freight dog is looked upon very
favorably by the people who employ air carrier pilots since they know that the
successful "freight dog" is a very experienced pilot used to handling
what may be rather primitive equipment in all kinds of weather.
The traffic manager of a large industrial plant is sitting in a room with no
windows, and he neither knows nor care what the weather is. All he knows
is that if the cargo is not delivered timely, the assembly line may have to shut
down and a large number of workers will be idled. Thus, the term "fast
freight" takes on a whole new meaning.
The airport where my flight school is located, being a general aviation
airport in the area of the world's automobile manufacturing center, has several
cargo operators, who fly auto parts from suppliers to the plants where the cars
and trucks are built. The equipment they use includes Cessna 310s, Convairs, and
Learjets among others, including some of the large singles.
For two years I had a contract with IBM for the delivery of emergency parts
by air. Wherever there is a big mainframe computer, there are IBM employees at
the customer's location to see that the computers are running properly. These
people are called Customer Engineers, or CEs. In various locations around the
country, in addition to regular parts warehouses, IBM maintains emergency parts
warehouses. In order to avoid the red tape involved in obtaining a Part 135 Air
Carrier Operating Certificate, I leased two Piper Seneca IIs to IBM, outbasing
one at a distant location to serve a warehouse there and keeping one locally for
the local emergency parts warehouse. The pilots were on duty at the warehouses
24 hours a day, seven days a week, and when a call came in from one of
those CEs, the pilot would grab the part (usually shoebox size) off the shelf
and head for the airport. He would advise the CE who had ordered the part as to
which airport, where on the airport and what time he would arrive. This program was extremely successful, so successful that the company took it
away from me and gave it to a large national cargo charter company that is
equipped to cover the entire country.
Most of the mail transferred by the Postal Service from place to place goes
by carrier, but there is still a large amount of United States mail being flown
around the country in cargo planes. For many years the venerable Beechcraft
Model 18 was the primary equipment used by the contractors who handled this
chore, and for many operators it is still is the aircraft of choice. In other
instances, Cessna's single-engine turboprop Caravan is popular. The pilots
flying the mail (and the cancelled checks as well) operate all kinds of
equipment in all kinds of weather, in the darkest of nights. Sounds like lots of
Again, this is a great experience builder, and many of the pilots employed in
this activity go on to become pilots for scheduled airlines, usually on commuter
or feeder carriers first, then for a major air carriers. However, none of this
is to say that all cargo pilots are on a career track to the carriers. A great
many pilots, for one reason or another, prefer to remain in the freight dog
classification and make a career of hauling freight.
Because crop-dusting, also known as aerial application, requires flying very
low and close to the ground including tight, sharp turns and accurate flight
paths the pilots engaged in this activity are especially skillful at
manipulating an aircraft's controls. This kind of flying requires special
training, and although the work is usually seasonal, the pay is high enough that
the pilot can earn a year's pay in the few months that the season lasts. Crop-dusting is a particularly dangerous and high-pressure occupation, but
the pilots engaged in this business with whom I've talked like the work and the
Banner towing is another seasonal activity for pilots except in the southern
and western coastal areas where airplanes towing advertising banners can be seen
flying back and forth just out from the beaches. In the northern states it is a
summer and fall activity, with airplanes towing banners over and near large
assemblies of people such as stadiums where sports events are taking place.
Banner towing usually involves flying low and slow in a single-engine airplane,
due to the banner's aerodynamic drag, but this activity is a great way to build
Here, again, a high degree of specific skill is required to pick up and drop
off the banner. Come in a bit too low and it is likely that the banner or
towrope will snag a wire, tree or some such. Come in too high, and you'll have
to go around for another pass, wasting time and your boss' money.
Although somewhat similar to banner towing, glider towing requires an even
greater degree of skill on the part of the tow pilot. It also requires a degree
of faith in the pilot of the glider following behind on a 200-foot towrope since
he or she is quite capable of jerking the tow plane around rather violently. A
considerate glider pilot will swing out slightly to the left of the tow plane,
allowing his sailplane's drag to pull the towplane's tail slightly to the left
and relieving the towplane pilot of the need to hold a lot of right rudder in a
high-power, low-airspeed configuration.
In the ocean waters where large schools of fish are found, so also are
aircraft reporting to the commercial fishing boats the location of these
concentrations of fish. The same is also true of the spotting of animals,
particularly for the census of herds and individuals. My primary flight
instructor had earned his living during the mid-1930s by flying around in a
50-hp Cub with the door open and a shotgun on his lap to shoot coyotes for a
bounty! Other operators fly light singles well offshore to help fishing
fleets spot schools of fish while many larger vessels sport a helicopter landing
pad and a small copter. The pilot lives aboard ship and flys from the helipad to
help find fish.
There is also a thriving business in aerial photography and surveying. In
addition to taking pictures of buildings and homes, nurseries and large farms
find aerial images extremely useful in deciding how to improve and maximize
production. Many years ago I occasionally flew for an operator who had me
photograph stockpiles of coal; ore, and slag for a couple of steel mills that
enabled them to judge their requirements. There are a great many other
applications for photography from the sky.
It seems that every large U.S. city has at least one television or radio
station with an aircraft it uses to report traffic and "real-time"
news events. Although networks of strategically-placed video cameras have
displaced many airborne traffic reporters in recent years, news-gathering
remains a popular application for light aircraft and can be a great way to build
time and learn first-hand the rigors of commercial operations.
Virtually every municipal, state, and federal law enforcement agency
maintains a fleet of aircraft for surveillance, traffic control and emergency
response, among other uses, and these aircraft have proven themselves time and
time again. Of course, the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency
employ large numbers of pilots to help interdict the flow of illegal drugs into
Another area in which quite a few pilots are employed is patrolling pipelines
and power lines. Here again, the flying is done at a low altitude and requires
specific skills, including the ability to monitor the area being patrolled while
flying the aircraft.
The spotting and fighting of forest fires is another area of specialty flying
that has an important place in our economy. The earlier a fire is discovered,
the better the opportunity to contain it, and the dropping of water and
retardant chemicals is quite useful in fighting a forest fire, once it is
Sadly, there aren't a lot of "career flight instructors," as I
pointed out in a previous column, but there are some, and this is another
occupation for the commercial pilot. Helping students become safe, efficient
pilots can be a very rewarding career for the pilot who wants to make a living
flying and there is a strong need for this kind of dedicated professional in
Next time the subject of commercial flying comes up in a conversation and the
consensus implies that air carrier operations are synonymous with flying
commercially, feel free to point out that the carriers comprise a small fraction
of commercial flying.
Blue skies and sunshine to you all.
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this
column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That
way others may benefit from your input.