Cargo Pilot Education and Career Path
Depending on the company targeted, education requirements can vary. Of course all major cargo carriers will require you to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate due to the Part 121 regulations their flying operates under. Keep in mind the minimums posted on their job openings reflect exactly that and most candidates highly exceed the minimums. FedEx and UPS, in particular, can be extremely selective due to their high ratio of applicants to slots available.
After obtaining your pilot certificates and building time to Part 135 IFR Captain minimums (1200 total flight hours, among other requirements), you might consider flying for one of the ‘feeder carriers’ that connect small towns to larger cities. Companies including Mountain Air Cargo, Empire Airlines, Martinaire, and Ameriflight operate various aircraft including the Cessna 208 Caravan, Beech 1900, and Swearingen SA227 Metroliner.
Once you’ve hit Airline Transport Pilot minimums, you can begin to look at bigger opportunities. Though the major cargo carriers do hire pilots flying for regional airlines and that may be an appealing way to rapidly build flight time, if cargo is your goal it may be far more beneficial to aim squarely for a pure freight carrier.
A large amount of cargo flying is provided by ACMI carriers. An acronym for “Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance”, ACMI carriers can provide on-demand worldwide air service for everything from high value vehicles to perishable flowers. Two major utilizers of ACMI lift are Amazon (which contracts out all of its package flying) and DHL, an uncommonly seen package company in the US but a major player internationally.
In the US, the largest operators in the ACMI market are Atlas Air and Kalitta Air (founded by famed car racer Connie Kalitta), alongside other companies including ABX, Air Transport International, and National Airlines. Many smaller companies operate from a few to a dozen aircraft and may hire pilots as low as ATP minimums, potentially providing a way for a relatively low time pilot to get into a larger aircraft and earn some worldwide experience.
No matter how you build time, remember the larger cargo companies are just as competitive as the major airlines for pilots and anything you can do to stand out can help you have a shot for interviewing and hiring. Volunteer work, mentoring new pilots, and participating in industry organizations can help your resume to stand out.