Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Dogging.....pilot style!

I was thinking whilst sitting staring out of my window at 32,000 feet above southern Kazakhstan, how life as a Boeing 747-400 pilot flying freight is so different in lifestyle, both on and off the flightdeck, when compared to flying the passenger variant. I suppose looking over and seeing my co-pilot wearing slippers and a tee-shirt adorned with the logo of a heavy rock band started this train of thought! Cargo generally doesn’t care what you like, generally passengers do though, and they appreciate a pilot to look like a pilot and not a refugee from some rock concert.

Being a cargo pilot is often seen as the unglamorous side of aviation, in a way I suppose it is, but it is definitely no less fun. Freight doesn’t start complaining when it is departing late, it doesn’t throw up on the freight in-front of it in turbulence and nor does it pose the options of requiring you to recycle divorce lawyers every five years or so. Yes it is not packaged in the same way that some of the bubbly blonde stewardesses whom I flew with in Virgin Atlantic were, nor were they as cute as some of the Korean flight attendants, with their often doll like features, and I am not referring to the dolls which require a bicycle pump to bring them to life. I mention this as freight pilots are often considered to be at the crasser end of the pilot community, which is not true. This reminds me of all the sarcastic comments made by pilots towards us, our operation and aircraft, all of which bring a smile to my face.

I first started my airline career as a co-pilot on the Avro 748 aircraft; I suggest you check your history books in the chapter following on from Orville and Wilbur Wright! These were affectionately known as ‘Budgies’, why I don’t know, maybe because they went cheap……just a guess. These aircraft, even though I am regressing to almost thirty years ago were as sophisticated as a Roman chariot, but I loved them.

This aircraft would generally spend its day flying passengers around the UK and the parts of Europe which could often be seen if you stood on the English seaside cliffs! They were like a bad wine, they didn’t like to travel too far; as it also had the range of the previously mentioned Roman chariot!

However, at night the 48 seats would be removed and she became the aerial equivalent of a post or mail van, just with a slightly longer route. We would fly from London down to the Channel Islands carrying newspapers and return with flowers. Or fly from Liverpool to Ireland with the days post. Generally starting work when ‘normal’ people were considering going to bed and finishing when they would be having their breakfast; which is why we were often considered as being nocturnal bat like creatures. Often I would sit down at breakfast, my girlfriend with her coffee and me with a can of beer, well it would help me to sleep, I would try and convince her…..and me!

The fun flights on this old aircraft would be the ad-hoc charters to destinations we would not generally visit. Firstly I say old, for example, one aircraft had a brake accumulator explode, this was located in the nose wheel bay under the co-pilots seat, it burst through the flight deck floor and removed the co-pilots arm-rest, and fortunately this occurred on the ground when there were no crew on-board. This part was traced back to having started its life on an Avro Lancaster of World War Two fame……..thinking back I am sure some of the Captains probably came from the same vintage too!

One of these notable ad-hoc flights took me to Tromso in Northern Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, where we set off from Newcastle in north east England carrying a gear box and shaft for a fishing trawler. After a couple of hours of droning across the North Sea we stopped in Bergen for fuel, and what a beautifully scenic airport it was too. From here we headed north starting our descent into Tromso at three in the morning in broad daylight, the sun didn’t set at this time of year, and when we reached the hotel I realised the locals didn’t set either!

The descent had us navigating between two N.D.Bs, along a steeply sided fjord; my captain had a brand new video camera, except back then it was the size which required balancing it on your shoulder, if you were strong enough possibly supported in both arms but with a battery pack that could jump start a train. On this occasion we were flying below the peaks of the fjord’s cliff walls which is when he asked if I would fly an orbit, as ‘no-one was watching’ and the location was just so stunningly beautiful. I managed to complete this circular pattern without bumping into anything, though it probably bemused the fishermen on their boat below us! I don’t think we would get away with it these days.

One flight we used to operate between the UK and southern France would have us transporting 20,000 passengers at a time, though these were day old chicks and the flight was the only one where we were paid a dry cleaning allowance. You see each chick would be injected twice, once with a vaccine and secondly with a glucose based serum to prevent dehydration, now that is one job I would not have the patience for. Inflight these chicks would give off the same heat as a low wattage light bulb and sweat as a result. During these flights this sweat would freeze on the cabin ceiling and during the subsequent descent into warmer temperatures thaw out and run down and into the cockpit, dripping onto our backs.

It was always easy to spot this crew in the crewroom on their return to base, as they were generally huddled around their own table and kept at arm’s length by everyone else and strangely they were generally not invited to the pub for a drink afterwards!

A memorable flight had us entering Liverpool Speke airport, before John Lennon posthumously gave his name to it, outside of which could be found a billboard advertising ‘Welcome to Liverpool, a Nuclear Free City’, now I had no idea what that meant, except that on that particular day it was wrong. After having our ID passes checked entering the airport, they were checked again leaving the airport building and then, should our identities have changed in the short walk across the tarmac, checked again by a ring of police surrounding our aircraft. Our freight on this occasion was spent nuclear fuel rods from the Sellafield nuclear power station and they were in transit to a destination in southern Europe. A flight which required us to parallel the coast all the way down to southern Spain before being allowed to turn eastbound towards our destination. This flight was banned from overflying any populated areas, even though it had spent the preceding six hours on trains and trucks passing through one of the UKs largest cities.

After four fun years flying the ‘Budgie’ I spent the next fifteen years flying passengers; before joining Korean Airlines and experiencing the fabulous Boeing 747-400 freighter. Flying for this airline allowed me to operate the passenger, combi (half passenger and half freighter aircraft), freighter and extended range freighter variants of this versatile aircraft. Regardless of what you might have read or heard I found KAL to be an absolute delight to work for and with the odd exception great people too. Respect and understanding their history and culture would reap its own rewards and in my case returned back to me.

Along with the normal KAL passenger destinations I would spend time on layovers on their freight network in many diverse countries, my favourites being Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Anchorage Alaska and Bangkok Thailand amongst many others.

We would often operate ‘round the world flights’ which makes you realise just how small this planet of ours is. Setting off from Seoul in South Korea we would initially drop into Anchorage; spending time drinking beer in one of the most famous freight dog bars, F Street Station. Well  the social side was a huge plus point, but geographically it was a destination which used to confuse the life out of me; crossing in-flight the International Date Line meant that we would arrive the day before we departed, I was not only a pilot but a time traveller too!

I have many memories of this vibrant city, to me it had the air about it, that something was just about to happen. Witnessing a drunken gun fight from the safety of my hotel window acted out by two extremely wobbly men, whose shots were more of a danger to overflying seabirds than each other was one of my funniest memories. Or waiting in the blowing snow at a railroad crossing for a train which had to be at least a mile long to pass was not one of my favourites. However, sitting on the terrace of a delightful fish restaurant at the head of the fjord leading directly to the city of Anchorage, hence its name I suppose, feasting on the most succulent halibut whilst watching a pod of frolicking orca, wondering when the next earthquake would strike is a scene which is permanently engrained in my brain, again yes life was good.

Next stop on this particular adventure would take us to New York’s Kennedy airport and see us spending a couple of nights on Manhattan Island, in a hotel opposite XXXX and trust me I never want to stay there again when the New York dog show is on, the noise the smell and like my Korean colleague I too was a dog lover!

Departing from New York we would route over the North Atlantic towards Oslo, the most expensive destination on our global circumnavigation and fortunately for the bank balance spending only one night there.

Feeling like a jet assisted Phileas Fogg would see us heading south east for Tashkent and a couple of nights in this fabulously entertaining city. This was certainly a city for people watching, absolutely fascinating.

It is also one of only two cities where I have been mugged, the first one being Amsterdam where I was stabbed in the leg by a trilingual mugger when I refused to hand over my money and here in Uzbekistan where I had to hand over twenty dollars and a packet of Marlboro cigarettes for no apparent reason but to a local policeman.

Tashkent would be our last stop before heading back to our home base of Seoul, around 36 hours of flight time for the logbook, ten days away from Seoul and a big dent in the credit card; fabulous fun though and it made me realise just how lucky I was to do what I did, something I never forget.

Again with KAL, it was flying from Chicago direct to Seoul one evening that the term ‘Freight Dog’ really became a reality. On boarding the aircraft I was advised that the flight would be empty except for one small piece and that was a travelling container for a dog. This was being done as a favour for a US marine colonel based in Seoul and his dog, Scooby Doo…yes that was his real name, was to travel out to be with him.

I took pity on the poor creature and carried him up to the upper deck, made him a basket out of blankets and gave him a water bowl and later cooked him a steak. Even dogs can travel first class with fine dining and ‘sleeper’ seats if you take the time and effort!

Occasionally during the thirteen hour flight I would take him down the rickety ladder and onto the main deck where he could run around and play a game of Frisbee together using a plastic plate. This was surely setting a world record as I calculated that the distance travelled by the Frisbee was in the region of half a kilometre! Every now and again during the cruise the curtain separating the flight deck from the upper deck cabin would part and Scooby’s head would peer in…..I have a couple of great photos of this true freight dawg but I shall release the best ones after I retire!

Several years later my life as a cargo pilot found me flying the DC10 for Avient, a Zimbabwe registered company based at the time in Vatry, a small airfield close to Paris France. We would spend most of our time flying down to Africa, visiting the ‘cosmopolitan’ cities of Lagos Nigeria, Entebbe Uganda and Dar-Es Salam in Tanzania, great fun but I thought an airline with a dubious future. I was to be proved wrong as they are still managing to exploit their particular niche in the worldwide cargo market.

The DC10 was a fabulous aircraft to fly but I found a confusing one to operate. The aircraft were of a particular vintage and oozed a history of adventure, with smells to accompany it, by the way don’t get me started on the toilet facilities, more opulent ones could be found down a side street in Addis Ababa Ethiopia!

There were no luxurious sleeper seats to rest in on-board, often on flights out of Entebbe where our cargo would be tonnes of frozen perch from Lake XXXXX, I would find myself ensconced in every available item of clothing I could lay my hands on, reclined on a mattress which could have once been stolen from an unsuspecting Russian homeless person. The reason you see was that the main deck cargo compartment had to be kept at freezing temperatures to preserve the freshness of the fish, it was during these flights that I realised my life had taken an unexpected turn, strangely not for the worse though, and as the Italian Mafiosi would threaten, yes….I was sleeping with the fishes!

One thing which was an oddity for these parts of Africa was that when you left the aircraft overnight several gallons of fuel would disappear, as a certain element of the locals would help themselves to what they could carry for their cars and fires, I can only imagine the performance of these less than mint condition vehicles when being run on Jet A1 fuel! Oh, and don’t get me started on the money flights where we would carry over sixty tonnes of bank notes from the mint in Kuala Lumpur via Salallah in Oman to Lagos Nigeria, again another story for when I retire…..

My next experience as a freight pilot would be several years later after a spell flying the Boeing 737 for several European airlines and it is where I can be found now, again operating the Boeing 747-400 freighter for a fabulous airline based in Baku Azerbaijan called Silkway West. My routes now take me to Hong Kong in the east and London in the west, with many airports in between. Often I would be operating ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) flights into Camp Bastion, Kandahar, Kabul and Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan; flights which bring their own challenges……for obvious reasons but a subject for another day.

So the life of a freight dog maybe not the most glamorous one in the world but for pure variety, challenges and excitement, I certainly consider it to be one of the best. As Scooby would say, Woof!

If you would like to fly with Alan on most Airbus and Boeing aircraft types, then he can be contacted on 00 44 1372 879195 or by e-mail at