My Life as a Freight Dog

Dentist turned delivery pilot

November 1, 2004

I  used to lay in my bed in my home, halfway between the Bunan locator at the outer marker (LOM) and Runway 31, two dots right of the localizer, and listen to the rumble of the Beechcraft Queen Air boring through the gray sludge of another winter morning in Bemidji, Minnesota. I'd dial up the automated weather observation system to hear what the pilot was dealing with. Hearing a half-mile visibility and ceiling at one hundred feet in snow and freezing drizzle, I'd feel that as a pilot, even with 3,000 hours of flight time with instrument and multiengine instructor ratings, I was just an imposter, a dilettante. The real pilot was up there while I lay toasty under the covers, waiting for the coffee to brew before rising and going off to my day job.

Heavy rain, blinding snow, lines of thunderstorms — none of these stopped the morning arrivals and evening departures of Bemidji Aviation's flights 52 and 51, hauling the UPS freight on the daily round trip between Bemidji and Minneapolis. Pilots I knew, mere mortals, pilots I had instructed, or who had been my instructors, loaded and unloaded the rolls of carpet, frozen fish, machine parts, and bags of overnight mail, weights of over 2,000 pounds, helped only by the driver of the brown truck, and then launched into weather, fair or most foul.

I am by day a dentist. Flying is my avocation and passion. I give flight instruction in my Cessna Skyhawk for private and instrument students, and provide refresher training, proficiency checks, and flight reviews. I fly fire detection, sightseers (we are in the heart of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes), and photo missions. According to whim and circumstance I've taken myself and friends to Chicago, Key West, Florida, and the Rocky Mountains. But after 15 years of flying and observing the flying lives of others it has become apparent that there are really two kinds of pilots: those who take off when they want to and those who take off when they must. The latter group fascinated me so much, especially the freight pilots, that I eventually, if only for a time, joined them.

Two years ago, the owner of Bemidji Aviation Services Inc. (BASI), Larry Diffley, noting my experience and part-time availability, suggested I go through its Part 135 training and get checked out in the Queen Air for some real flying. Realizing this was a now-or-never sort of opportunity, I said yes.

BASI offers freight and charter services with a fleet of 15 Queen Airs, eight Beech 99s, a Beechcraft King Air, and assorted smaller aircraft. UPS is its chief customer and BASI is currently contracted for 15 feeder routes. Most of these originate in Minnesota (outside of the Twin Cities) or western Wisconsin and terminate at Minneapolis-St. Paul International/Wold Chamberlain Airport in the early evening hours. Most pilots stay overnight at the company apartment and are up again in the wee hours for the 6:30 a.m. departures. BASI also covers three UPS runs in the Dakotas, which fly in and out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Potential new hires interview with Henri Verbrugghen, the director of operations, and take a simulator ride with Chief Pilot Jeff Breuer. If that goes well the pilot is scheduled for a week of ground school, followed by flight training in the Queen Air and a 135 checkride.

New to my experience were Part 135 regulations, hazardous materials training, various paperwork requirements — use of the minimum equipment list, flight and duty time records, aircraft logs — and the Queen Air and its systems.

Queen Air differences training was a challenge because there are three models of Queen Air on the line: the BE 65, the BE 65-80, and the BE 65-A80-8800. Except for the BE 65s, most of the airplanes within each model are quite different as to autopilots (two have none at all), weather avoidance equipment, radios, switch placement, and anti-icing systems. Some of the airplanes crossfeed by pushing fuel to the other side; others suck from the other side. Two airplanes have baggage compartments in the nose; one airplane has a prop synchrophaser. Half the airplanes have a maximum gross takeoff weight of 8,000 pounds; the others can be loaded to 8,800 pounds. All but one Queen has an inverter switch. One has two avionics switches under the copilot's panel, which are quite essential but almost never found if a pilot has forgotten this detail in differences training.

The veterans at BASI seem to regard these variations as quaint personality traits among the airplanes, and think of the fleet like a collection of more or less favored pets. I carried the company differences handout with me at all times and developed and continually revised my own crib sheet. BASI pilots rarely fly the same airplane two flights in a row. Airplanes are serially rotated back to Bemidji, the company base, in a game of musical airplanes whereby the pilot flying the morning UPS run from Minneapolis to Bemidji usually flies an airplane needing scheduled maintenance, or has one with squawk items needing attention.

The flight training is straightforward, running five to eight hours of flight time over two or three days. Emergencies are covered in depth and engine-out procedures and single-engine operations are a serious deal. The Queen Air is not your father's light twin. The props are not counterrotating, the Lycoming IO-720s put out 400 horsepower each, and these airplanes are often flown at max gross weight, in ice, in turbulence, in instrument meteorological conditions, in the dark. That's why they call it real flying. You need to be ready.

After the flight training and checkride, the new pilot goes through an apprenticeship period on the line as a single-pilot operator, but with an experienced observer pilot in the right seat. He or she is there only to offer suggestions, reinforce company policies and procedures, and save your backside should you verge on violating an FAR, get behind or confused by the paperwork, or seem bent on dumping the freight somewhere other than at an airport.

I found the early, accompanied apprentice flights the most stressful part of my transition to this kind of flying. There is much multi-tasking, so many masters to satisfy — the Queen Air, air traffic control, the company, the customer, and the weather. You alone must do the job and sometimes these various masters place difficult and contradictory tasks before you. All must be accomplished under the critical glare of this leather-skinned observer pilot who sits over there, arms crossed, making suggestions much after the fact in the hopes you'll pick it up eventually.

Revisiting one of these early flights on a weatherish night recalls how complicated the drill can get:

I got to the airport early, printed out the weather, checked the airplane, the fuel, and made sure the charts and approach plates were handy and current. I had my handheld VHF transceiver, an extra flashlight, an extra calculator, a sandwich and a diet Coke, and extra gloves in my flight bag. I plugged in my headset, reviewed the departure, and waited. The observer pilot — we'll call him "Bill" — arrived, but the brown truck was late because of snow and icy roads. That snow was likely to cause delays getting into Minneapolis, and getting loaded, out, and into Minneapolis on time seemed iffy. The truck arrived with a load that put us at max gross weight, and the driver and I transferred the cargo with haste. I packed the diverse and sundry boxes, bags, and objects as cleverly as I could, realizing the volume (and shape) of the freight can be as much a problem as weight. I signed the load slip, shut the door, secured the latch, and, via the wing, crawled through the crew hatch (the pilot's window), knocking my headset off the headliner and annoying Bill who, it seems, had been napping.

I started the engines and taxied out, calling center over the remote frequency for our clearance (Bemidji-Beltrami County Airport is a nontowered field). Surprisingly, there was an open slot, and we were given an immediate departure clearance. I finished the weight and balance in the two-minute departure window while the engines warmed up, went through the takeoff checklist, and we launched. Gear up, climb at 130 mph, power back to 25 inches, props back to 2,400 rpm, pumps off, turn to heading, landing lights off, lean engines for climb. I called ATC: "Minneapolis Center, this is Bemidji 51, just off, on heading, climbing through two thousand eight hundred for five thousand." They wished me a good evening. Minutes later I leveled off, set the power, rpm, mixtures, and trim. This was one of the Queens without an autopilot and we'd been in IMC since 900 feet agl. It was dark out there.

Soon I noticed a buildup of ice on the wings. It wasn't time to blow the boots yet, but I asked Center for 7,000 feet. They said I could have higher in 30 miles. Forty miles later, waiting for higher, I was redoing the weight and balance, which Bill had checked over and found in error. Hand-flying the airplane, checking the wings with the ice light, I kept dropping my calculator, forgetting where I was. The ice had reduced our airspeed from 165 to 155 knots. Center checked in with some news: Expect a 40- to 60-minute delay into Minneapolis because of metering. "What are your intentions?" asked the controller. I looked over at Bill. He said nothing, which meant he was asking me the same thing. I said I'd check with company, which I did via a relayed message to another Bemidji flight. My instructions: "Bemidji 51, go to Sioux Falls."

I negotiated a clearance to Sioux Falls, vectors direct, 6,000 feet, blew the boots, and started the climb. I then hand-flew the iced, max-weight Queen another 150 miles, finished the log, corrected the weight and balance, and reviewed the weather and likely approaches for an airport I'd never seen that was reporting a 600-foot ceiling, winds at 25 knots, and very icy runways.

Once on the ground, after the freight was unloaded, close to my normal bedtime, I ordered fuel after checking with company policy on the preferred provider, filed a flight plan into Minneapolis (by now the rush was over), and took off into the icy night again. I was lucky to get two hours of sleep before the alarms in the bunkhouse at Minneapolis went off and I trudged back to the airport and a different Queen Air, and another 2,000 pounds to pack into the dark tube of my office.

About the bunkhouse: BASI provides lodging at an apartment located just off the airport in the shadow of the Mall of America. This is not upscale housing, but even the cheapest of hotel rooms in the area would take a sizable chunk of a freight dog's pay, so most everyone stays there. Ten or 12 souls sleep in three small upstairs bedrooms, in the living area of the main floor (there is a bed in the kitchen nook, two in the living room), and apprentice pilots take refuge in the basement, down near the noisy furnace, among the spiders, in the impenetrable darkness. The three beds in the dungeon are separated by heavy black sheets of barrier plastic and feature, in addition to a small mattress and a blanket or two, a clock radio. The nervous trainees watch the clock all through the short and sleepless nights. I was, I believe, among the worst of the insomniacs, watching the red numbers tolling the time: 11:18 p.m., 12:56 a.m., 2:23 a.m. Sometimes these digits seemed to rise or move about the room, evidence that a tired pilot can experience autokinesis even in bed.

New pilots may err in selecting a bed on a first-come, first-served basis, sliding into Ray's nest by the TV, or relaxing on Bob's tight-as-a-drum, always-made bed upstairs. You never sleep in another pilot's bed, although some of the established pilots, on a night off, let it be known that someone may sleep on their bed, but not in it. Trespassers suffer long-term snits or rebuffs by the offended pilot.

One night, during a rare stretch of sleep, I was awakened by a barking dog and loud shouting. Armed police with a canine unit had burst into the apartment on a tip that the place was being burglarized. The pilot in the kitchen nook had been reading with a tiny flashlight and the beam's erratic motion in the window caught the attention of a nervous neighbor.

The reading pilot was cuffed and marched outside in his boxers; the rest of us were rousted from our beds and paraded out onto the lawn, most of us in underwear, hands in the air. Half a dozen officers encircled us with drawn pistols; others were leaning over the hoods of two of the cruisers, rifles pointed at our shabby group. Men and women from twenty-something to sixty-something, disheveled and suffering headset hair — we looked like aliens from some indeterminate country. Our repeated explanations, our commercial pilot certificates, and a call to BASI finally defused this bizarre chapter of our freight dog life. The police could not understand why pilots, pilots who must be making a lot of money, would be stuffed like sardines in this low-rent housing unit.

In the end, it was the long hours away from home and the sleepless nights that brought my life as a dog to an end. After a draining day at the dental office, the sudden shift and need to pump myself up for loading freight, weather flying, and getting up at 4:30 the next morning was too much. I am too old for an airline career and my bones ache.

This was a terrific experience. I miss rolling the levers forward on the big Lycomings, the hurly-burly rush hour at Minneapolis-St. Paul, being one in the string of pearls dropping out of the night sky, marching in line to the rapid-fire controllers, then climbing through the clouds in the morning and bursting into a candy-colored sunrise.

I was never in the worst of the weather, those nights when everybody is using everything to stay afloat in heavy ice, or when thunderstorms are so thick and growing that going through the softest parts is the only option, or when the atmosphere turns to Jell-O and it's less than a 100-ft ceiling with visibilities at a quarter-mile, with pilots diverting to anywhere in a three-state area looking for a landing spot. But I shot approaches to minimums with ice on the airplane, landed on icy runways in thrilling crosswinds, heard the clap of thunder over the rumble and roar of the IO-720s, and saw lightning in the clouds around me.

Now, when I'm eating dinner, or sipping my morning coffee, and I hear Bemidji flight 51 or 52 coming and going in heavy weather, I say to myself, "I have been there, and I have done that, and I am a better pilot for it."

Marsh Muirhead, AOPA 1090000, of Bemidji, Minnesota, is a CFI, dentist, and writer with 3,600 flight hours.