How To Become A Cargo Pilot

A cargo pilot is a professional airplane operator who operates commercial airplanes.

He/she follows a route and ensures adherence to correct loading and off-loading procedures to protect the cargo. He/she cleans and maintains the plane he/she flies.

How To Become A Cargo Pilot

Cargo pilots and airline pilots both work in aviation. But there are some key differences between them. Cargo pilots need to know how to handle emergencies such as mechanical failures or fuel leaks.

On the other hand, airline pilots also have the responsibility of taking care of people who board the plane, including baggage handlers and flight attendants. Airlines also pay more than cargo companies do.


Cargo pilots perform many different jobs. Their main task is to prepare their plane for flight. After a flight, they inspect the aircraft and report any problems to maintenance workers.

Pilots also communicate with air traffic control (see also “How Does A Transponder Work?“), record flight information, and file paperwork.

Commercial airline pilots must make sure that their passengers’ safety is guaranteed. A pilot must be responsible for ensuring the safety of the entire plane. He/she must make sure all parts of the airplane work properly.

Both types of pilot need to coordinate with other pilots to ensure that there is enough fuel, or enough room in the cargo hold.

Pilots need to communicate with air traffic controllers to ensure that planes do not fly too close together, or too far apart. The pilot must also report any problems that occur during the flight.

Training And Licenses

Commercial pilots must be at least 17 years old, hold a student pilot certificate, meet the requirements for the type of aircraft they want to fly, pass the FAA knowledge test, and pass the FAA written and practical exams to become a commercial pilot. Cargo pilots must obtain at least 3,000 flying hours.

Pilots who want to fly cargo or passengers must get a license. To get a license, they can choose among several options.

First, they can take a modular CPL(A) course. Then, if they want to fly cargo or passenger planes, they can go for an integrated ATPL(B) course.

In addition, if they want to focus on flying cargo or passengers, they can take a cadet program. A pilot cadet program is the most secure way to complete your training.

It is also the same ATPL integrated program for pilots’ licenses, but it offers a conditional employment guarantee from airlines before you start the training.


Cargo pilots must be able to see far away objects clearly. Nearsightedness is allowed. Airline pilots must be able to hear and speak clearly.

Immediate vision is vital as colors must be perceived correctly. Hearing and speaking abilities must be maintained.

Cargo pilots may wear glasses if needed. A hearing test is required before being hired as an airline or cargo pilot.

If pilots suffer from mental illness, they may need an in-depth assessment by a professional and anyone who takes drugs or drinks too much is not permitted to fly planes.

Flight Hours

Cargo carriers require more hours of flight time than passenger carriers. The most common requirement for cargo pilots is 1,500 hours of TT.

Cargo captains must be very experienced pilots (see also “How Many Stripes Does A Captain Have?“). They need to have several thousand hours of total time and over 500 hours as pilot in command.

Pilots who fly freight should be very experienced and highly trained because they have to deal with many different situations.

Working Schedules

How To Become A Cargo Pilot

Cargo pilots often work long hours at night. Their schedule tends to be a week on/week off. This makes it easier for them to rest after a hard day of work. Cargo pilots tend also to get more vacation time than other pilots.


Cargo pilots often earn more money than passengers because they fly larger planes and their pay increases as they become more experienced.

Smaller commercial planes are cheaper to operate and passengers usually fly shorter routes meaning commercial pilots often fall into a lower salary bracket.

Lowest paid airline pilots make less than $74,100 a yr. Top 10% earn more than $208k. The average wage for airline pilots is $179,080 a yr.

The highest paying states are California, Alaska, New York, Florida, Washington. The median pay for airline pilots is $106,360 a yr.

The lowest paying states are Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Georgia. Cargo pilots make less than passenger airline pilots.

Cargo pilots in the lowest 10% of pay earn less than $52,000 a year. Cargo pilots in the highest 10% of pay earned more than $168,000 a year.

Pilots earn more money over time. Their pay increases as they gain experience. The highest-paid pilots were those who had been working for an airline for twenty years or longer.

Cargo pilots make about $53k per year as entry-level workers. As experienced workers, they earn up to $167k annually.

Growth Trend

Pilots could be in high demand in the next few years because of an increase in passengers traveling by plane. Cargo pilots also seem to have more stability than airline pilots as they often work for large air freight companies.

Aircraft Types

Cargo airlines use mostly passenger planes as well. Cargo planes are usually modified versions of passenger planes.

Almost all cargo planes are derivatives or conversions of commercial passenger planes. Cargo airlines use different aircraft for different purposes for example:

  • DHL mainly uses the Boeing 757-200 and Airbus A300 for their European flights.
  • UPS Airlines uses the Airbus A300 and Boeing 757-200 for their European flights.
  • FedEx Express Airlines uses the Boeing 757 and Airbus A320 for their European flights.
  • Mid-range cargo carriers use the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 for short and medium-range flights.

As mentioned, Cargo planes are usually smaller than passenger planes. Some larger cargo planes were designed to carry freight but also passengers.

For example, Antonov An-225 is a huge plane able to hold 280 tons of cargo. You can also see Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, a large cargo plane able to hold 113.4 tons of cargo.


Becoming a Cargo Pilot is a noble profession indeed. And with the right training and experience can lead to a lifelong career in aviation.

Jacob Stern
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