Your Packages Cannot Fly Across Oceans Without Help: Interview with UPS 767 Captain Ken Hoke

12:23 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
These days, you’d have to be living under a large rock to not buy stuff online in this global economy. While brick and mortar still has a place in our retail world, the air cargo industry has grown exponentially in recent years. You can click a button to send a package from your front door to Japan, and after a uniformed driver picks it up, it soon appears at a front door on the other side of the planet. How it gets there though is the responsibility of international cargo pilots like Ken Hoke.
In between long nights flying over oceans and time spent in hotel rooms on either side of the Pacific or in the EU, Hoke virtually sat down with Airplanista so we could dig into the backstory of what life flying for the big air cargo airlines is really like. In this interview, you will learn a few things you did not know, and if this sparks a fire in someone to set a goal of flying for an airline draped in brown, or one in dark blue and orange livery, well that is fine with me.

AIRPLANISTA: Let’s set the stage, give us your aviation info (hours, type ratings and certificates) and a list of the planes you commonly fly, both at work and in private life.
KEN HOKE: I’m Ken Hoke, a Boeing 757/767 captain for UPS Airlines. I was trained as a civilian, building hours flight instructing, flying for the Forestry service, and flying small aircraft charters (Piper Aztec, Navajo, twin Cessnas). My first airline job was American Eagle in Nashville flying the Fairchild Metroliner and BAE Jetstream Super31 (it wasn’t all that super, but it was fun). After two years at Eagle, I was fortunate to be hired by UPS Airlines.

I’ve been at UPS since 1990, starting out as a Flight Engineer (2nd officer) on the McDonnell-Douglas 70 Series DC-8. After four years on the engineer panel, I flew as first officer for six years, then nine years as captain. When UPS retired the DC-8, I moved to the captain seat on the 757 and 767 in our international domicile and have been here since.
My pilot certificates include single-engine Commercial; multi-engine Airline Transport Pilot; Flight Engineer - Turbojet, and expired instructor certificates. I have type ratings for the Jetstream 31, DC-8, and Boeing 757, 767. I have over 12,000 hours, most of it staring out of front windows in the middle of the night. And after 30 years of being away from light aircraft, I recently checked out in a Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six. It’s nice to do some real flying again!

AIRPLANISTA: What are some of the routine routes you fly, with approx. NM of each.
KEN HOKE: I enjoy flying in our Asia system. Typical trips are 8-14 days long and start at UPS Worldport in Louisville, KY. I’ll fly 2,500nm to Anchorage, layover for a day, then fly over the Pacific to Tokyo, Osaka, or Incheon. From there, I’ll fly for 8-10 days in Japan, our hub in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), and a handful of other places, like Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and the Philippines before flying back to Anchorage then home to Louisville. Once in a while, I’ll do a westbound around-the-world schedule. Once in Asia, it continues to Taipei, Mumbai, Dubai, Cologne, Newark, and finally back to Louisville.

Does flying the same routes ever get boring?
KEN HOKE: Not really (at least not for me). I enjoy all the places I fly. I’m familiar with the routes and controllers, so that makes the flying easier. Every flight, regardless of route, provides new challenges. I have my eating, sleeping, and workout routine for different cities and hotels. If I want to mix things up, I’ll bid some Canadian flying (Vancouver is fun) or an Atlantic crossing to our Cologne hub.

AIRPLANISTA: What is the process for calculating weight and balance when you have a big aircraft loaded with cargo? Do the pilot(s) have any say in where the cargo goes, or is it automagically calculated by a supercomputer at the Mother Ship?
KEN HOKE: Thankfully, all weight & balance and performance calculations are computerized. Our load planners and supervisors handle the payload. Packages are loaded into large containers called Unit Load Devices. We refer to them as ULDs, containers, or cans. If items won’t fit in a ULD, they are palletized. All ULDs and pallets are weighed. The computer system then calculates exactly where each container will be loaded onto the aircraft.
After loading, the crew receives an electronic load manifest that provides the aircraft weight and proper elevator trim setting for takeoff - trim is used to compensate for slightly nose or tail heavy loading.

How much pressure are cargo pilots under to stay on schedule, and who has the final say on weather decisions, dispatchers or pilots?
KEN HOKE: We always want to depart on time. On any particular flight, my payload represents thousands of UPS customers. We carry everything from college student care packages to critical medical supplies. And it’s all important.

The dispatcher and captain share joint responsibility for the safety of the flight. The captain has final authority. Our aircraft are equipped with SatCom so we can talk to a dispatcher anytime, anywhere. If the weather is problematic, the dispatcher can contact the captain (or vice-versa) to discuss options and agree on a game plan. The plan might include an alternate route, different altitude, a higher fuel load, or delaying departure. We want to go, but even more, we want to be safe.

What are some of the weirdest cargo types you have carried?
KEN HOKE: Being in the package delivery business, most flights are filled with all sorts of stuff. We don’t usually know what’s in the back. We occasionally have special flights with dedicated cargo. My favorite is flying a 767 full of fresh cherries from Washington state to Anchorage (the cherries continue on to Asia). These “cherry runs” fly daily for 2-3 weeks while the cherries are ripe. I’ve also flown frozen seafood, steaks, medical equipment, and heaven knows what else. When a manufacturer rolls out the latest must-have electronic gadget, we fly plane loads of them.

AIRPLANISTA: How much time is spent RON away from home, and what do you do during those layovers?
KEN HOKE: I’m away from home 12-14 days a month. In order to get Thanksgiving off this year, I fly two 14-day trips with only three days off between them. When I bid for my schedule, I try not to do that, but it’s the holidays. The payoff will be a couple weeks off at the end of November. My layovers are between 14 and 36 hours. The hardest part is figuring out when to sleep. The rest of the time I spend eating, working out, walking, paying bills, and writing articles for my AeroSavvy Aviation Insight site. While on a trip, I tend to sleep during the day, even on weekend layovers, so I’m rested and ready for night flying. I’m not much of a tourist while on the road.

AIRPLANISTA: Because there are no passengers, is flying a cargo aircraft different in terms of the graceful nature required for passenger flying? No drinks to spill in back…
KEN HOKE: We fly our aircraft with exactly the same precision and professionalism as we would with passengers. Transport aircraft should never be flown aggressively or sloppy. Although I don’t have passengers in the back drinking coffee, I AM drinking coffee. And I prefer not to spill it on my brown, polyester-blend uniform pants :-).

AIRPLANISTA: On long flights, how many crew are aboard, and what is your schedule, flying and rest?
KEN HOKE: Any flight scheduled over eight hours requires a third crew member called an International Relief Officer (IRO). It’s an extra First Officer. Flights over 12 hours require two IROs. Our current longest flight on the 767 is about nine hours (Anchorage to Incheon). We divide the cruise portion into three rest periods. Each crew member gets a rest period to eat, sleep, watch a movie, or whatever they want. All of our first officers are type-rated in the aircraft so it’s fine to have two FOs up front while the captain is in the back taking a nap.
Our 767s are equipped with a crew rest module on flights that require an IRO. From the outside, it looks like a standard ULD container and is loaded right behind the cockpit. The module is accessible from a small door in the back of the flight deck. Inside the module are two private bunks, clean linens, and two chairs with seat belts and reading lights. The module is super quiet and has its own temperature controls. It’s wonderful.

AIRPLANISTA: I once read that the major cargo haulers use energy management techniques on descent, saving fuel along the way. If that is true, describe the procedure.
KEN HOKE: Modern transport aircraft have a top-of-descent feature built in to the Flight Management Computer. It’s used by all airlines (cargo and passenger). During cruise, the FMC calculates an idle-thrust top of descent point along the route. When we hit that point, we request descent (if ATC hasn’t already given us clearance). If there are no delays on the way down, the aircraft can descend at idle thrust until reaching the terminal area where we begin the approach.

AIRPLANISTA: Last, tell me the best thing and the worst thing about being a cargo pilot.
KEN HOKE: The worst thing about being a cargo pilot is probably the worst thing about being any sort of airline pilot: time away from home. The best thing about flying cargo is not having the complications inherent when flying humans. On most cargo flights, it’s just the captain and first officer. We can jump up and make coffee or use the restroom whenever we like during cruise (visiting the lavatory is a complicated procedure for passenger flight crews). Cargo flight decks are often larger than the passenger counterparts, so there’s more room to stretch.
A large passenger aircraft may have over 20 cabin crew members plus two or more on the flight crew. Moving the crew and their luggage from the hotel to the airport is a complicated exercise in logistics. When it’s time for me to go to work, my first officer and I meet in the hotel lobby, hop into a waiting taxi, and off we go.
You can read more from Ken Hoke on AeroSavvy here.

You Might Also Like