I was hired with Atlas Air in 2004. At the time although Polar Air Cargo had already been acquired by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings the Atlas and Polar seniority lists for pilots were separate as they remain so far. The company however has approached the union and expressed the desire to merge both lists into one. Time will tell how this is done and what the impact will be on pilot employment at Atlas/Polar.
The interview was conducted for Atlas by Atlas people although I believe interviews are now conducted by either/or Atlas or Polar people and a candidate who has been selected now goes into a pool to be called by either/or Polar or Atlas.
We were responsible for getting our own way to the interview and for our own accommodations and food. I returned to my previous flying job and learnt of my successful interview a few days later.
The Chief Pilot called me directly followed a bit later by a formal employment offer from the HR department. My class date was 19 days beyond my interview date. I was assigned to 5 different class dates back and forth on different equipment (-200 and -400) and eventually was offered a -400 First Officer position.
We had to report to class with our drug test completed and were greeted by a Flight Engineer instructor who gave us our first week of basic indoctrination. This the same as any Basic Indoc class at any airline: Airline policies, Operation specifications, etc.
This was followed by two weeks of aircraft systems. The course was fast paced (fire hose style) but the audio/visual presentation was very well done and the instructor did an impeccable job at taking us from B747-400 wannabe’s to being conversant on the -400 systems. We also had a cardboard box full of material. Like any airline training event one cannot/should not expect to been spoon-fed throughout and some major studying is required of everyone. The hotel we stayed at was conveniently located and of adequate comfort to foster good study habits. I cannot emphasize more that EVERY instructor and EVERY management person I encountered was willing to “bend over backward” to provide any help / information requested to help in being successful. The job was offered and was ours to lose or to keep. Their job was to make us successful. Our class had 6 candidates for the -400 and 6 candidates for the -200. One departed for personal reasons within the first week and a second washed out of training at the end. All of us remaining made it through training without hiccups. Of all 10 who made it to the line three have left by now: one for personal reasons, one for medical reasons and one to another airline for commute reasons. I believe all who remain including myself knew more or less what to expect and our both delighted and grateful and proud to be flying for Atlas.
The 2 weeks of systems were followed by 3 SIT’s (equivalent to Cockpit Procedure Trainer but done in the actual simulator without motion turned on) after which the oral exam took place with a company designated FAA examiner. Two more SIT’s were completed after the oral and eventually full flight simulator started with 8 training sessions followed by a 9th recommendation simulator ride and a 10th session being the actual FAA type rating evaluation. Simulator 11 was a Line Oriented Training session (LOFT) followed by an 12th session for CAT II and III training as well as three takeoffs and landings from the right seat in preparation for First Officer duties. Each simulator session was 4 hours in duration split in two-hour modules for each training partner. All the flying was done from the left seat (since we were typed in the airplane) except for the last session designed to fulfill F/O takeoff and landing requirements. We had briefings and debriefings before and after each session and we received a training syllabus on day one outlining exactly the content of each simulator sessions, the objectives and the standard to which we would be held. This was in my opinion an invaluable tool that make preparation that much easier.
The type ride as any check ride is a balance between healthy stress (the one that keeps you operating at peak performance and keeps you on your toes) and healthy calmness that comes from confidence in the training received and the knowledge that being prepared no matter the experience level anyone is liable to mess up, knowing that there is no “perfect” check-ride but that we all received the tools necessary to demonstrate knowledge, safety and FAA and Company standards. This check-ride was no exception … “fair and balanced” like the news are supposed to be. The evaluator was professional and courteous and although I was glad to have the ride successfully completed I can honestly say it was a pleasant experience.
I took an observation ride by riding in the jump-seat of an actual Atlas flight. This allowed me to witness in real time the application of my training and last but not least to transition me from “training pay” to “line guarantee pay.” OE (Operating Experience) took place one month after my type ride. My first trip was a pacific flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea and back to Los Angeles. I met with my OE Check-Airman/Captain the night before at the Hotel in LA and we went over the chain of events. My first operating flight on the actual “Whale” was a treat for whether I want to admit it or not it truly was the achievement of a childhood dream. It was a mixture of personal satisfaction of having realized the dream and that of knowing deep down that it is not any different than any other airplane but for one thing … it is after all in my biased opinion and arguably “the best looking commercial aircraft” out there.
The first leg to LA was as First Officer and Pilot Non Flying per company policy. The return flight from Seoul to LAX was as First Officer and Pilot Flying this time. Call me crazy but I have always enjoyed taxiing an aircraft and taxiing the -400 from approximately 33’ up above the deck was a treat. This is the first time I sat so high and although not complicated per se the first few times required to pay some extra attention, given the wingspan and the 18 wheels that must be kept within the confines of the “narrow” taxiways. Takeoff was at the maximum gross weight of 396, 896 KGs and was literally a blast. The four GE CF6-80 C2B5F engines developing 62,100 Ibs of thrust each took us up flying in what seemed like an effortless “liftoff.”
We enjoyed the view over Japan with Mount Fuji in the clear. It was not my first time over the Pacific but definitely my first time in a four-engines aircraft flying a NoPac route to LAX. The weather was not bad upon arrival but was far from clear for my first 747 landing. A 12 knots crosswind with slight shear, rain and 400’ overcast was on the menu. Flying the ILS was not a problem but I was rehearsing in my head the last 100’ of the approach supposed to take me from flying to being a ground vehicle: “100’, quick check of the winds and be mentally prepared for the proper correction, 50’ on the radar altimeter think about flare but … don’t … 30’ start flaring and retard the thrust levers while centering the nose and keeping the wings level.”
Those things that I have done a million times almost instinctively yet in this new airplane and from this relatively high cockpit position required some getting used to and some conscious effort. The radar altimeter callouts came out as a blur and I eventually touched down on the centerline and in the touchdown zone. It was a legal and safe landing, one from which not only the pilots would walk-out from but as an added bonus even the aircraft could be used again! The touchdown was good according to the check airman. I would qualify it rather as “acceptable” (not the smoothest ever nor the hardest ever either).
My subsequent trips continued around the Pacific for a week and a half with a different Check Airman. Honolulu to Melbourne to Sydney to Hong Kong to Anchorage to Chicago. The successful completion of OE occurred in Anchorage after I set the brake at the parking bay area. I was now officially “blessed” as a B747-400 pilot.
I had a month off before I took my first non OE flight and reported to my base in Stansted, UK for my first reserve assignment. I did not fly during that week then I flew my first non-training flight from Amsterdam to Dubai and later from Dubai to Hong Kong. Now routine sets in which is not to say I am not learning new things for you bet I am. Make no mistakes every flight I take makes me feel more comfortable with the aircraft. All in all the airplane is a dream to fly, built like a tank and the performance is just plain incredible. If one has flown glass cockpit airplanes before the -400 is an easy transition. The Autopilot/FMS combination makes any pilot look good. Although a heavy aircraft it is surprisingly light and responsive on the controls when flown manually. Hydraulics and artificial feel do wonders, don’t they?!
I have enjoyed every crew member I have had the priviledge to fly with so far. All were very professional individual with a good attitude and a willingness to make a good work environment. The background is varied. There is a considerable amount of military experience in the pilot group as well as and more and more civilian one. Flight time I believe varies from about 5000 hours to the low side to in excess of 25,000 + hours and everything in between. Some have heavy transport experience, some have fighter experience, others have regional experience and everything else that make the pilot population tick.
The B747-400F aircraft (for those who have yet to see the interior of a -400F) does not have the large fuselage hump (also known as “megatop” with certain carriers) found on the -400 passenger airplane but has the smaller hump found on the -100/-200 aircraft.
There are 4 seats in the cockpit (the two pilot seats + 2 jump-seats) and in the Upper Deck area located immediately behind the cockpit is a fully equipped galley with work area, oven, coffee maker, sink, cupboards, fridge and trash can compartment as well as an electrical outlet. There is a toilet and 4 first class (although older models) reclining seats. There is also a separate crew rest area with two bunks. The compartment is climate controlled, lighted, it has its own window, garment hook, storage compartment and intercom system.
The flying at Atlas is extremely varied and we fly to every continent. Some of the cities I have had the pleasure to go to so far are: Amsterdam, London, Prestwick, Luxemburg, Brussels, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Munich, Budapest, Gothenburg, Almaty, Baku, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Sharjah, Dalian, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Dhaka, Manila, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Sydney, Anchorage, Chicago, New York, Huntsville, etc …
Atlas has five bases so far: Los Angeles, Anchorage, New-York, Miami and London Stansted.
The company has a union: ALPA and bidding is done on the computer via PBS system (Preferential Bidding System). When I joined the company we had 12 days OFF per month and worked 18 days while the contract now provides for 13 days off and 17 working days per month. Days off could be parceled out through the month or in a block depending on bidding preferences set in the bidding software and depending of course on seniority. If one decides to work the last 17 days of a month and the first 17 days of the next month it is possible to be working 34 days straight with 26 days of straight immediately following. The combinations are endless. One could conceivably bid to work one week on and one week off or any other combination. One could also bid for specific patterns to specific cities. Out-basing exists and is awarded based on seniority.
While out-based a crewmember is available for 33 days straight and could conceivably fly beyond 120 hours of ACTUAL time. I was awarded such once and given that I had flown the last 18 (now 17) days of the preceding month and then spend a day on either side to commute home plus a calendar day lost in the time zone shuffle I was “on the road” for 54 days straight. Of course legal rest occurs during that period in accordance with FAA regulations. Above all one has to be extremely flexible for in the cargo world the customer is king and if he/she decides to delay the flight by one hour or seven in order to bring more pallets, than that is what the new schedule is going to be. We fly on both sides of the clock. Sometimes you leave in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon while other times you leave at night. Some do not like to fly at night some do. Personally I like the variety and I like doing both. My way to see things is that if you don’t like flying at night you can take comfort in knowing that it is night for you but day time somewhere else in the world! It is 8 hours difference between GMT and Hong Kong and 13 hours between the east coast of the US and Hong Kong … needless to say jet lag exists and one has to make a conscious effort to get adequate rest not only to be legal but more importantly in order to remain healthy.
Most flights are in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 hours. Some are 15 to 18 hours long and some are as short as 25 minutes (i.e. Amsterdam reposition to Luxemburg).
At Atlas we enjoy comfortable hotels for our layovers and the company repositions you on business class seats on reputable airlines while traveling outside of the United States. US domestic travel is in coach. The exception is for new hires based in Stantsted whereas we enjoy the same benefits while traveling within a pattern but whereas we are responsible for transportation to our base (Stantsted). If one lives in Stantsted it is not a problem. If someone lives in the United States or elsewhere one must consider the commute to and from base.
Recurrent training is twice yearly as follows: a “PT” or Proficiency Training simulator session every 6 months for both First Officers and Captains and a “PC” Proficiency Check session in the simulator every 12 months again for both First Officers and Captains. Along with the PC comes the traditional FAA mandated aircraft system recurrent ground school and Operations Ground school subjects. Recurrent training takes place in Miami for US based crews and in London for Stantsted based crews although one could be sent anywhere based on scheduling requirements.
While at home or on pattern throughout the world one keeps in touch with the company via a company intranet website (password protected) and/or via 800 worldwide toll free numbers to a personal voicemail system. A station guide updated by a company pilot helps in getting around the world with such things as “where to go for deadheading out of airports; who is the station representative, what consulate is located where, what fax numbers for hotel XYZ, what do you dial to call from Uzbekistan, What GMT time is it in Taipei, Where to we park on military base ABC, etc …
Company expenses on the road are paid for using a company issued credit cards, which must be reconciled every month.
While on rest in the various world cities one has to be contactable outside of legal rest times within 4 hours. This can be extended to 8 hours with the concurrence of our scheduling department and one can get release altogether for a longer period on a case per case basis and with proper authorization. Being responsible here is key and is really not a problem. Our job is demanding but also rewarding and a Safari in Africa can be an example of such reward one could indulge in.
In closing Atlas offers a job opportunity that is not for every one that has advantages and disadvantages … in the end one has to be honest with oneself and decide on what floats one’s boat and what does not. If you’re single or married with an understanding spouse, if you love flying, would like to fly “heavy-metal” and enjoy long-haul flying … if in addition you’re flexible, professional an like adventure, if you like going to new places and get acquainted with foreign cultures without missing “mama’s cooking” then Atlas offers a wonderful opportunity. I am glad I took the job and am enjoying the experience.
Good luck to you!