A day in the life of a Cargo pilot
When I was approached with a request that I write about “a day/night in the life of a freight Pilot”, I started to wonder – what actually is a normal day? Is there such a thing in the freight world? How would I best describe this job to an outsider? Actually, why is that I do this job?
My name is Chris Jephcott and I’m a Captain on the 767 at a large freight company based out of East Midlands Airport. I started my career in Flybe on the Dash 8. After about 8 years on the Dash, Monarch offered me a chance to expand my career into a different sphere and I jumped at it. Although I did enjoy a couple of years flying as a Senior First Officer on the Airbus A320/321 to the Canaries and Mediterranean, sadly it wasn’t to last and on 2nd October 2017, like many others, I lost my job with the collapse of Monarch. At that very moment in time, my daughter was 4 weeks old and I made a vow that I would try my best to never put my family through the pain of redundancy again – which is why I moved to freight. I’ve been here for nearly 5 ½ years now and live in the local area with my 2 children and my long-suffering (but very patient!) Wife.
The last few years have been a bit of a blur.
Whilst many pilots were furloughed or laid off, we were never busier.
Unlike the passenger world, our peak season that normally exists in late November through to January didn’t stop throughout the Covid pandemic. Obviously, this came with unique challenges – spending extended time in hotels down-route, isolating, living off tinned food because no restaurant was open and becoming very good at Sudoku and virtual board games!
Brexit provided our company with a very unique position.
There’s an old adage in the freight industry that says when passenger airlines have turbulence, freight expands.
This was true for Brexit. As opposed to our traditional operation of 757s around Europe, we moved into an intercontinental sphere and have expanded our operation with further 767 and 777s with more to come still. In turn, this led to great career development possibilities for everyone within the airline, and we are all still feeling the advantages of this now.
So what is a normal day – or more particularly a normal night? It normally starts with sleeping for as long as I possibly can do, often moving from bed around Midday. Our report times vary as with the destinations with some reporting times are more akin to earlies from my previous life. Assuming this is a standard Atlantic rotation though, we report at home base around 8pm for a 9pm departure, where we do the normal ETOPs planning and Flight Plan work.
The flight times out of East Midlands to the States are normally no longer than 8 hours. Getting airborne can be bit of a rush as we are close to the Atlantic entry point straight away so there’s a lot of work to be undertaken in a shortish amount of time – en-route weathers, clearance, setting the aircraft up all fall into a logical sequence, so by the time we reach the Atlantic, we know exactly what our contingencies are.
As soon as we enter Atlantic airspace though, it drops to a much gentler pace. Food normally goes into the oven, headsets go off and – if we’re lucky – we get to watch a display of the Aurora. There’s not much chatter on the radios and sometimes it feels like we’re the only aircraft going this way to the States.
The seemingly endless tundra of Canada comes next, often with a 1000-mile direct routing before we head into American airspace and onwards to our destination. Normally, we get to our destination in the States around 1am local time – so plenty of time to get some more sleep before an American breakfast.
The majority of our stops on the long-haul fleet are a minimum of 24 hours.
So after breakfast some go for a long walk, some go shopping, some go to the gym, but generally speaking we all meet early afternoon for what is effectively a dinner before calling it a day and going back to sleep.
A lot of the work we do on the return flights is in UK daytime – leaving the States at 10 or 11am, arriving back into the UK anywhere between 7pm and 9pm. One of the best things about this rotation is that you do your sleep recovery down-route and arrive back in the UK remaining in UK time – perfect for when you know that you’ll be a climbing frame for 2 excited children at 6am the following morning!
We also do short haul trips, which are different again as these invariably involve night flights and day sleeping. But the routine always remains the same – wake up around Midday and try to find the nearest, and strongest, source of coffee!
There are also longer trips to the Far East and into China and these last anywhere between 7 to 9 days on the 767.
So what drove me to freight in the first place? I think that is really answered best in one word – stability.
Having been through redundancy once before, I know the impact it had on my nearest and dearest – as well as myself. Although in this industry you can never say never, in my opinion, minimising this risk was a defining career choice. Although I would be the first to admit that I wasn’t sure initially how it would work for me or my family, it’s been a great journey. I’ve visited many places that I never thought I would visit and seen some amazing sites along the way – sometimes spending up to 90 hours in one city.
The 757 and 767 are both great aircraft too, and a joy to fly and the route network is very varied. What we do one day might not be what we end up doing the next. The network changes regularly and we simply respond. It’s caught us all out though and will do again – you pack for Tel Aviv and you end up in Helsinki!
It’s very different to any previous role I have held in aviation. One of the biggest “perks” is getting to see parts of the world that were on your bucket list.
In the last few years, I’ve done everything from swimming in a natural river spa in Iceland through to wine tasting up the Rhône Valley in France.
In the short-haul passenger world, I was so accustomed to flying somewhere and having 50 minutes there before flying back, whereas now the vast majority of flights result in a stop somewhere around the world. I think, most importantly though, for myself is the ability to balance off work/life balance. Most mornings, I am able to walk my daughter into school and even pick her up before I have to go to work.
Are there any negatives to freight flying? Some people might struggle with the Night shifts, although in the long-haul world, it’s much less of a problem.
I think the biggest one has to be the endless jokes about “when are they going to trust you with passengers?”.
Whereas prior to Covid, freight was in the background of aviation – it kept on going without anybody really ever hearing anything from it – Covid put freight into the forefront of the UK aviation industry. It might not have the perceived glamour of flying passengers around, but it is stable and fun – a great testimony to the crew that I am lucky to operate alongside. Being sociable helps, as does being able to keep smiling when things start to prevent a smooth day.
Can I wrap up the above in a simple statement? Not easily! Things are changing in our company with the expansion requiring an unprecedented recruitment drive. These changes also create further issues, but against these further issues come great opportunities to individuals. And with freight having existed in the shadows of the industry for so long, it’s now taking its opportunity to present a serious career option within aviation for those who crave stability in their working lives. And I, for one, am delighted by this.
This is part of the a blog series by BALPA pilots about their jobs. Read the others by clicking below: