Ground Clutter

April 8, 2000


The midnight rider

By Ralph Hood

April 2000

Alittle respect, please. I am now an international freight dog. I spent a recent night in the cockpit of a freight-hauling Atlas Air Boeing 747-400 (that's the latest version). We took off from Huntsville, AL, flew to Mexico City and Guadalajara, then returned to Huntsville, all in nine and a half hours!

I'd like to tell you that I took this all in stride, helped the pilots handle cockpit duties, and in general remained dignified, but it just ain't so. Actually, I became a goggle-eyedkid at first sight of that giant behemoth of an airplane, and remained so throughout the night.

Ralph Hood is a Certified Speaking Professional who has addressed aviation groups throughout North America. A pilot since 1969, he's insured and sold airplanes at retail and distributor levels and taught aviation management for Southern Illinois University. He currently serves as National CFI Marketing Mentor for AOPA's Project Pilot Instructor Program. Reach him at [email protected]

I made astute comments such as shucky dern, golly gee, and Lawd-amighty. It was a right heady experience for a general aviation pilot more accustomed to ferrying crop dusters than to cruising at flight level four-one-oh.

Forget every image you ever had of freight hauling in oily twin Beeches held together by duct tape and safety wire. This was one more uptown airplane. It was less than two years old, and had more systems than the Pentagon. There were three auto-pilots arguing among themselves, three inertial reference navigation systems, and two GPS systems.

The Atlas Air pilots, Captain John Bloom and First Officer Don Langford (I just called them Sky God 1 and 2) casually discussed the relative merits of flying into places like Singapore, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur (where the heck is that, anyway?). I mentioned my recent trip to Ames, Iowa, but they really were not all that impressed.

I had never been in a cockpit larger than a Navajo, and the size of the 747 was too much for me to truly comprehend. It's like being in an apartment complex that moves. The nosewheel is ten feet or so behind the cockpit, so a taxi turn starts long after the crew is hanging off of the taxiway and over the grass. The crew is some 35 feet above the ground, way ahead of the engines and the rest of the airplane.

On every takeoff it seemed we rotated way below stall, on every landing we seemed to touch down while still at cruise altitude. I never did get used to it. We did one completely automated approach and landing, all the way to touchdown and roll out. It's enough to give a pilot an inferiority complex.

Atlas Air, Inc., a story in and of itself, is the world's third largest air freight hauler, owns the largest fleet of freight Boeing 747s (including the new 747-400) in the world, operates all over the globe, and is listed on the NYSE, where it has done very well.

On the other hand, Atlas Air owns no ground equipment, hauls no "retail" freight, has no terminals, and no ground crew. Although Atlas operates worldwide, it is paid only in U.S. dollars. Atlas' only customers are major airlines and, basically, Atlas has only one product. It leases B-747s on what is called an AMCI lease — aircraft, maintenance, crew, and insurance are included.

The sales pitch is, "Hey, you've already got the ground crews and equipment and the business, we'll provide the airplane and crew cheaper than you can do it yourself." Talk about niche marketing!

It's no secret that air freight is burgeoning, airlines are concentrating on passengers, and oustsourcing is here to stay. Atlas has positioned itself to run with those trends.

I could write more about my newfound status as a jet-setting freight dog, but I've got to run out and get some epaulets for my shirt.