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Beyond the norm 1: the wide variety of the BALPA membership

by Matt Smith B737 First Officer

At BALPA, we are proud to be able to represent over 10,000 members. Our diverse membership ranges from commercial airline pilots to drone operators and everything in between. The spring edition of The Log, due to land with members in the next few days, looks at the more specialist categories of BALPA membership as the lead article. Here, cargo pilot Matt Smith, tells us what a normal day is for him, as well as what BALPA membership means for him and his cargo pilot colleagues.

I am a B737 First Officer for West Atlantic UK, based in Coventry, but much of the flying is out of East Midlands. We fly express mail and freight for several leading brands in the UK and Europe – including DHL, La Poste and UPS – and recently became the single supplier of air-freight services for Royal Mail. We also have an aircraft assigned for transporting racehorses around Europe.

Our week usually starts on a Sunday or Monday, when we will position out to meet the aircraft to achieve full rest before starting the first night’s flying. Generally, most flying starts on Monday night, and consists of two to four sectors, averaging around an hour each. We currently work a seven on, seven off rotation.

After working as a project manager in the automotive industry, I decided on a career change and began as a cadet in December 2010. My goal was always to be a pilot, and I had already completed my PPL. My training was fully funded, in exchange for working for the company for 18 months while studying for my ATPL theory exams. Once these had been passed and my hour building was complete, I was put on a type-rating course for BAe ATP, which I flew for three years before transferring to the 737.

Although there are differences between carrying cargo and passengers, the training process and qualifications you need are the same, as they are both commercial operations. A lot of people think there is less pressure or responsibility being a cargo pilot, but I would argue that there are more pressures. Most of our customers require 99 per cent dispatch reliability, and we have a very strict delay threshold of five to 10 minutes before we start incurring fines.

The main difference from a cargo pilot’s schedule is that we fly a night-based roster, which means operating outside of your normal circadian cycle – and, because we fly mostly at night, there are fewer usable alternate airfields in Europe. Managing fatigue can be a challenge on certain routes, but we moved to a week on, week off pattern recently, which helps greatly with recovery.

The issues cargo pilots face differ from those of a passenger pilot. For example, we don’t have to deal with abusive passengers or medical emergencies (aside from the crew). The main challenge for us is maintaining our dispatch reliability.

BALPA membership is as important for cargo pilots as it is for every other kind of pilot. It’s a way of organising the collective thoughts of the workforce to maintain and advance welfare for our mutual benefit.

Over 75% of Britain’s pilots, winchmen and flight engineers belong to BALPA. Our membership is currently more than 10,000 and growing each month. To qualify for full membership you must hold a current Professional Pilot’s Licence or flight engineers licence issued by the UK or any of the JAA countries, be engaged in British commercial flying and be based in the UK or employed by a UK company abroad.

Alternatively, you may be a ground instructor or helicopter winchman employed in British commercial flying. There are also associate member categories for overseas pilots, retired, military, unemployed, trainee cadets or drone operators. To join BALPA or look further in to the benefits of being a member please visit https://www.balpa.org/membership/ or contact our membership department on 020 8476 4000.

Next week, we’ll be posting the second instalment of our ‘different BALPA memberships’ series, featuring our first ever drone member, Paul Clarke.