Lessons From A Veteran Cargo Dog

Excellent situational awareness, staying ahead of the airplane and checking your ego at the door are all keys to flying cargo, just as they are when flying anything else.


After a half-century of experience in the cargo flying sector, long-time pilot Stan DeLong has seen it all. He claims to be semi-retired, but he still flies a Piper Navajo Chieftain during United Parcel Service’s peak season, and is chief pilot and check airman for Gem Air, LLC. If you make the mistake of assuming his experience is geographically limited, he also is check airman for Cte d’Ivoire (formerly the Ivory Coast) in Africa… but that intriguing story will have to wait for another time.

Since I am still relatively new to the cargo world, I was determined to meet with DeLong to glean as many insights and as much wisdom as possible. In a world where we learn from experience, the only other thing that comes close is learning from the experiences of others, so I basically had just one overarching question: What makes a safe cargo pilot? His answers were illuminating and applicable to all pilots.


Stan Delong’s cargo pilot career started in 1967 in a 1965 Alon A2 Aircoupe with a 90-hp Continental engine. He flew loudspeaker components from Cassville, Wisc., across the Mississippi River to Dubuque, Iowa, where they would be loaded onto an Ozark Airlines aircraft for shipment to their destinations. It was only a 20-mile flight, but that beat the convoluted drive required to get the products across the river.

Later he flew mail in a Cherokee Six from Dubuque, Iowa, and LaCrosse, Wisc., to Minneapolis, Minn. This was in the period when cargo operators were just beginning to require instrument ratings, but DeLong was ready with an IFR ticket. The habit of staying a rating or two ahead of increasing requirements remained with him the rest of his career. It’s also a useful tip the rest of us should ponder.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, he worked for Ameriflight managing fleets of Beech 99s, Beech 1900s, Fairchild Metroliners and Piper Navajo Chieftains. He had many roles—training pilot, assistant chief pilot, division chief pilot and division manager for the Salt Lake City office—fulfilling major cargo carrier and unscheduled ad hoc deliveries, and ensuring checks, packages and boxes made it to their destinations on time.

DeLong’s cargo rsum includes many long routes, like the one from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Great Falls, Mont., but also featured unique, pop-up deliveries. Like getting up in the pre-dawn hours to ensure a helicopter transmission made it to a mining site in Telluride, Colo., and ensuring a critical insulation blanket was dispatched from Hill AFB to Vandenberg AFB, where it could allow a launch to take place.


There is an old joke that the winds aloft forecast is the only weather a cargo pilot looks at to calculate fuel because it doesn’t matter what the other weather is, you’re still going. This isn’t true, of course, though winds aloft are particularly critical because the main commodity of the cargo business is time and delivery. Packages are usually on a plane instead of a truck for a reason. That reason underpins the entire air cargo business.

DeLong believes the safest pilots work hard at having an understanding of developing weather. “When weather is down, you need to know where, why and what you’re going to do about it,” said DeLong, who then joked semi-seriously that when the weather is too bad for IFR, you may still have a safe VFR option.

Like any pilot, cargo pilots need to have a solid understanding of developing weather. But, DeLong said, “More than being a good stick, a safe cargo pilot is one who really knows what is going on in the 3D spherical envelope that surrounds the plane.

“Where is the icing layer 100 miles ahead? And what conditions are pilots ahead reporting? It might be safer to find a spot between layers, but that means listening to and processing what you are hearing on frequency and turning it into a picture in your head,” said DeLong. “A good cargo pilot is constantly updating a picture of what is happening along the route and what options that creates.”

“A good cargo pilot has to know how to calculate the ways to optimize the route to get the destination on time. And a good cargo pilot also has a backup plan when the destination is a no-go.” But then what?

DeLong offered another scenario: “It may be that drivers can meet and unload the aircraft at an intermediate airport, but after the plane is unloaded, does the airport have an IFR departure? Ground deicing equipment if it is snowing? You can choose an alternate airport, but you don’t want to get your aircraft high-centered at an airport you could get into, but then can’t depart.”

Every pilot should always have a set of options to stay out of, or deal with, deteriorating conditions. You should know how to calculate the ways to optimize the route to get to the destination safely, even if it isn’t on time, but you also need to be thinking about the next leg and getting the airplane back to base. The plane is important, safety is important and taking care of both requires significant forward thinking.

Internal SA

Cargo pilots are not just paid for takeoffs and landings; they are also paid to monitor the machine that keeps them aloft and alive. Is everything in the green? How is the fuel burn? What will be the next ATC frequency?

On long routes, it’s tempting to take it easy when very little else is happening. Referring to stories about pilots known to have taken catnaps on long legs—not entirely a fairy tale—DeLong said, hopefully ironically, that kind of relaxed behavior doesn’t fit well in the cargo business. “It is important to always be aware of the airplane and its systems,” said DeLong. “The pilot whose head is always in the game will catch system failures early and can execute a plan and recover. The ones who have drifted off, or checked out of monitoring duty, run the risk of checking out permanently.”

When you fly thousands and thousands of hours, your number will come up for some kind of mechanical failure. The more you fly, the more opportunity you have to experience engines that stop working, vacuum pumps that fail, gear that doesn’t come down or a deicing system that isn’t keeping the airframe clear of ice. When you pay systematic attention, you may be able to troubleshoot or resolve bad things before they are critical. But when you don’t pay systematic attention, bad things get worse.

Safe pilots, good pilots, will balance their attention to that 3D spherical envelope outside the plane with a solid understanding and awareness of what is going on with the plane and its systems.

Staying ahead

Over the decades of interviewing, training and checking out pilots, DeLong has developed a theory that all pilots have a speed where they can keep up and a speed where they get behind. DeLong said new pilots are usually 100- or 120-knot pilots, meaning they can keep up with aircraft as long as it is no faster than 120 knots.

Flying cargo usually means you are flying swifter and more complex aircraft, from 160 knots for a typical Cessna Caravan, to 300 knots for a Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner typically originating at a Class Bravo hub. The demands of flying complex cargo planes and the associated airspace starts sorting pilots into bins.

“There are some pilots that will never get beyond 250 knots. It isn’t personal, it isn’t even skill-based, it’s just a cognitive workload issue,” said Delong. In other words, not every pilot is capable of supersonic flight or more complexity.

The speed factor is how far ahead the pilot’s mind can be in 10 minutes. As the saying goes: Never take an airplane anywhere your mind has not visited at least 10 minutes earlier. For a 120-knot pilot, that means visiting 20 miles earlier, 150 knots = 25 miles, 200 knots = 35 miles, and 250 knots = 45 miles. Since the speed limit below 10,000 feet msl is 250 KIAS, everything above that becomes academic.

DeLong told a story of how he trained someone in Cte d’Ivoire to be first officer in a Merlin, but then had to tell the owner to never advance the person to the left seat. “He was good enough for the right seat, but he was not a 250-knot pilot. He was a Mach none pilot.” Despite his advice, the Mach none pilot was eventually promoted to the left seat of a 300-plus-knot aircraft, which he destroyed on a rubber plantation during a hard landing, most likely because he deployed beta thrust well above the runway prior to touchdown.

We all want to believe we are capable of flying any aircraft that we are checked out in, but it is equally important to be brutally honest with ourselves and stay safely below the point at which we feel overwhelmed and out of bandwidth.

This cargo season, DeLong determined that it was safer for me to stay in a Caravan, a plane I already had 500 hours in. He decided I wasn’t ready for the Navajo Chieftain, a faster twin-engine plane. Can I handle a Chieftain? Probably, but in foul weather, Class Bravo, and less than 20 hours in the airframe, he thought it was smart to wait another year. I gladly deferred to his experience and wisdom.

Checking your ego

When asked about the biggest dangers, DeLong turned the conversation to the pilots themselves, because the job is ripe for competition. A cargo pilot’s mission—to deliver on time and with the lowest failure rate achievable—is a pressure situation. It comes with permission to be creative, but not to be stupid.

A creative pilot is one who might still be able to get to a destination by filing to an alternate airport, shooting the approach to get beneath a layer and access better winds aloft, then flying VFR to the destination. Creative does not mean breaking laws or taking unnecessary chances to hit delivery goals.

DeLong said the most dangerous cargo pilot is one who is macho and competitive, someone who turns the pilot lounge into a competitive arena. “Competitiveness in a flight department is toxic. Competitive egos can create a cancer that can quickly spread and ruin the safety culture of a flight department.”

His talk about ego made me ponder not flying the Chieftain. Ego tells me to push and strive. Ego wanted me to give the Chieftain a try, which literally meant finishing my check flight and heading into the winter peak cargo season in a plane I was still getting to know. My experience said to listen to those with experience, and take slow steps rather than leaping into the fire.

Exercising Good Judgement While Retaining PIC Authority

There is a perception that cargo companies have a “Push the pilots out the door” culture, no matter the conditions. It has an element of truth. The pilot is always aware that while he or she is waiting for weather or dispatch, there are folks in trucks at the other end who don’t know exactly what’s going on, much less whether they should keep waiting. One delay may not cause any problems, or it can cascade into multiple delays along the cargo delivery stream, with the inevitable minor or major logistical logjams to solve, and possibly disappointment when a package isn’t delivered on time.

While the pilot’s go or no-go decision is critical for the folks downstream, the final authority rests with the pilot in command who owns the risk. It is smart to remember that questions like, “Are you sure you can’t make it here before noon?” are not intended to pressure the pilot into taking unnecessary chances to arrive prior to noon. Noon is likely a logistical breakpoint, a time when the delivery options have to change.

For cargo pilots, or any pilot for that matter, it doesn’t matter if the cargo absolutely, positively has to be there overnight—weather issues are given a pass by the customer, and you will not be punished (at least by a good employer) for making a weather call.

On the other hand, there is not a lot of forgiveness for showing up to the airport late, getting the wrong fuel load or failing to be prepared for the flight you are about to take. And there is possibly no forgiveness for taking off when you should have stayed on the ground.

Time is Money, But Safety Buys Time

The commodity cargo pilots sell is time and delivery. Compared to commercial pilots who haul passengers, a smart cargo pilot has more latitude for shaving off minutes and seconds without impacting safety. The boxes won’t complain if a turn is a bit steep or if the descent rate in a non-pressurized aircraft is uncomfortable. This is not permission to shortcut procedures, but creates opportunities to be more efficient. A cargo pilot will be thanked for efficient departures, flight paths that take full advantage of winds aloft and minimal time-wasting on the ground.

“Get-there-it is built into the cargo dog’s life. Your employer makes a living off pilots who don’t just get there, but get there on time,” said DeLong. “The key is balancing pressure with good judgment. We all know good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” That may be an old clich, but DeLong has survived 50 years of cargo dog experience. His insights, gathered over a lifetime, apply to all pilots since they face the same risks—cargo pilots simply have more exposure due to the amount of flying they do.

Mike Hart flies his Piper J3 Cub and Cessna 180 when he’s not schlepping people and packages. He’s also the Idaho State Liaison for the Recreational Aviation Foundation.


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