Eye of Experience #26:
Freight and Specialty Flying

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Most people think of the major and regional airlines when expressing a desire to become a

Eye Of ExperienceThe Freight Dogs

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.

FedEx logoThey 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.

Beech BaronThese 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.

Parts and Supplies

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.

IBM logoFor 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.


Cessna 208 CaravanMost 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 fun, huh?

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.

Specialty Flying


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 life.

Banner Towing

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 time.

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.

Glider Towing

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.

Fish and Game Spotting

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.

Traffic Reporting/Newsgathering

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.

Law Enforcement

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 the country.

Pipeline And Power Line Patrol

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.

S-2 TrackerFire Fighting

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 discovered.

Flight Instruction

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 this role.


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.