Flying cargo may not be as glamorous as flying people. But cargo pilots can make just as much money. Cargo flying has a diversity of operations and schedules to suit most employment needs and levels of pilot experience. Continue reading for a guide to cargo pilot salaries, other compensation, and an overview of the employment market.


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Salary Or Hourly? – How Cargo Pilot Pay Works

As there is a wide range in the types of airplanes and operations in cargo flying there is also a range in the way cargo pilots are paid.

Some smaller cargo operations will pay pilots either an hourly or daily rate for working but with no pay or minimum work guarantees.

Ameriflight BE1900 The most common method of paying entry level cargo pilots is on a salary. These pilots are then required to work a set amount of time for their employer. Pilots in these environments have less control over their own scheduling than what is normal for a professional pilot.

Larger cargo operations and those employers that operate jets typically pay pilots an hourly rate based on a rig accrual system. These operations will have minimum monthly hour guarantees.

Pilot Pay Rig System

A ‘rig’ is a minimum hourly credit a pilot earns for time spent at work. The rig system has evolved over the years to address the complicated nature of pilot schedules and to ensure pay protections for pilots for the time they spent being available to work.

Pilots that work within a rig system are assigned trips. These trips can be single days or all the way up to multi-week trips. A pilot is considered on the same trip until they have spent time in their home base off the clock – with no duty or contact requirements.

Trip Rig Pay

Trip rig pay is based on time spent away from base while on a trip. This begins when the pilot checks in for their trip until they go home at the end of the trip. On a trip rig of 4:1 a pilot would earn one hour of pay for each 4 hours spent away from base. Most pilot work agreements have rigs set from 1:3 to 1:5.

For an example based on a 4:1 rig – if a pilot is gone on a three day trip and is away from base for 48 total hours that pilot would earn 12 hours of pay. This is determined by dividing 48 hours by 4.

Duty Rig Pay

Duty rig is based on the clock hours a pilot spends working while on a trip. During a multi-day trip pilots will have down time where they are free from work duties. Most duty rigs range 1:1.5 to 1:3.

For our example trip from above, based on a 2:1 duty rig – we’ll take the three day trip mentioned and say the pilot was on duty and working for 8 hours on day 1, 12 hours on day 2, and 8 hours on day three for a total of 28 hours of duty. The pilot would earn 14 hours of duty rig credit.

Block Rig Pay

Block rig pay is based on actual time flying . Most block rigs are 1:1.

In the same three day trip example – we’ll say the pilot was in the air for 5 hours on day 1, 8 hours on day 2, and 5 hours on day 3 for a total of 18 hours. The pilot would earn 18 hours of block rig credit on this trip.

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Determining Actual Credit Earned Based On Rigs

With most pilot employment agreements, pilots earn hourly credits based on the highest of the rigs within a trip. That is, whichever rig would earn them the most money would take priority for that trip. In the example trip above 18 hours of block rig was the highest credit earned and would be controlling for the trip. The pilot would earn 18 hours of pay for that trip.

Per Diem and Other Pay Adders

Many cargo employers will have other pay adders on top base pilot salaries or hourly rates. These can include per diem, override pay for more complicated or difficult operations, or additional hours setup to encourage pilots to help employers meet staffing needs.

Cargo Pilot Per Diem

Per diem is a meant to cover pilot expenses while on a trip. Employers usually pay for accommodations and transportation while on a trip – per diem is meant for food and miscellaneous expenses.

ABX Air Boeing 767 When per diem is an hourly rate it is earned at a 1:1 ratio based on time away from base. Some employers will pay per diem based on a daily rate for days spent away from base.

When employers have international operations they will often have a domestic per diem rate and a higher international per diem rate.

Override Pay

Override pay is added on top of normal salary or hourly rates to compensate pilots for more difficult operations. Sometimes this difficulty comes from being further from home rather than just more complicated flying.

Pilots earn override pay as an addition to their normal hourly or daily rate.

Other Pay Adders

Pilot employers will have other pay adders to encourage pilots to help them with operations. Examples of some common pay adders:

  • Additional pay for working into a scheduled day off
  • Additional pay for coming into work on a scheduled day off
  • Additional pay if a pilot is drafted (forced) into working on a day off
  • Additional pay for working above a set threshold of days in a week or month

Work Rules Impact on Cargo Pilot Pay

Work rules as part of a pilot agreement can be just as important for pay as rigs or hourly/salary rates. Rules that protect pay or provide pay adders mentioned above can have significant impact on a pilot’s take home pay.

For an example, lets say a pilot is getting paid based on a rig system and is flying a trip being paid out on block time rig. But a flight gets cancelled for maintenance or weather issues. If the pilot works under an agreement that has a pay guarantee they will still get credit for the flight. Absent these protections and pilots will get sporadic pay cuts based on circumstances outside their control.

Pilots that have pay adders set by employment agreements can be confident in getting extra pay for working the circumstances that earn it. Absent an employment agreement pilots can face changing goal lines from penny-pinching employers.

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Entry Level Cargo Pilot Salaries

Cargo pilot jobs exist in various tiers. At the top are large-jet operators spanning the globe. These operations use airplanes similarly equipped as legacy airline airplanes and the pilots earn similar compensation. Getting to the top rung of the cargo pilot career ladder takes many years.

At the bottom rung of cargo pilot flying is entry level positions for low hour pilots. These positions are often worked instead of regional airline flying and can provide a good path to flying for either the top tier cargo pilot employers or legacy/major airlines.

Tables below are salaries for several entry level cargo pilot employers. This isn’t all-inclusive but is intended to give a broad overview of available salaries.

Entry Level Cargo Pilot Salary – Multicrew Airplanes

YearAmeriflight EMB12- CaptainAmeriflight EMB12- First OfficerMountain Air Cargo ATR - CaptainMountain Air Cargo ATR - First OfficerEmpire Airlines ATR - CaptainEmpire Airlines ATR - First OfficerAir Cargo Carriers (Shorts) - CaptainAir Cargo Carriers (Shorts) - First Officer
15900003745010861364196118716607887221233765
14900003745010674562936116376607887221233765
13900003745010410961702114140607887221233765
12900003745010310560492111852607887221233765
11880003745010133159306109668607887221233765
1086500374509958958144107536607887221233765
985000374509787657004105404607887045133765
882000374509619255344103376607886873233765
779500374509453853732101348607886705633765
67850037450929125216699320607886542033765
57700037450913145064797396607886382533765
47600036380897444917295472592806137032781
37500035310882004774093600578765901031827
27400034240862004635091780551205674030900
17000031000842004500090012525204424030000

Entry Level Cargo Pilot Salary – Single Pilot Turbine

YearAmeriflight B1900Ameriflight BE99Mountain Air Cargo C208Empire Airlines C208Wiggins C208CSA Air C208
15864006420064196699406761065480
14864006420062936685366629664196
13864006420061702671846498362936
12864006420060492657806420061702
11840006313059306643766313060492
10828006152558144630246152559306
9816005992057004612565992058144
8798005885055344595405885057004
7786005778053732578245778055344
6762005671052166571485671053732
5740005475050647559005457052166
4720005350049172549125350050647
3710005250047740543925243049172
2690005100046350530304975547740
1670005000045000524684692046350

Cargo Pilot Salaries – Jet

Tables below are salaries for several cargo pilot employers that operate large jets. This isn’t all-inclusive but is intended to give a broad overview of available pay rates.

Captain Hourly Pay Rates

B747/B777 Hourly Pay – Captain

YearAtlas AirFedex (777)UPSKalitta Air
15213313309273
14213310305273
13213307302273
12213305300273
11207301297267
10201298293260
9195295290254
8190293289247
7184292288240
6179291287234
5173290285227
4168289284218
3163288283211
2159287283183
115425846143

B757 Hourly Pay – Captain

YearFedexUPSATI
15270309246
14267305246
13264302246
12262300246
11259297241
10256293235
9253290229
8251289223
7250288217
6249287211
5247285205
4246284197
3245283191
2243283165
121946129

B767 Hourly Pay – Captain

YearAtlas AirFedexUPSABX AirATIKalitta Air
15179313309219246273
14179310305219246273
13179307302219246273
12179305300219246273
11174301297216241267
10169298293214235260
9164295290212229254
8159293289210223247
7154292288208217240
6150291287206211234
5146290285204205227
4141289284195197218
3137288283180191211
2133287283168165183
112925846156129143

Misc. Aircraft Hourly Pay – Captain

YearFedex A300 & MD11 - CaptainUPS A300 & MD11 - Captain
15313309
14310305
13307302
12305300
11301297
10298293
9295290
8293289
7292288
6291287
5290285
4289284
3288283
2287283
125846

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First Officer Hourly Pay Rates

B747/B777 Hourly Pay – First Officer

YearAtlas AirFedex (777)UPSKalitta Air
15149222219184
14149220217184
13149219216184
12149218215184
11145212209181
10141207203177
9137201198173
8133197194168
7129193190163
6123189186159
5117186183154
4111182179148
3105178175144
2100178175124
1807946111

B757 Hourly Pay – First Officer

YearFedexUPSATI
15195219166
14194217166
13193216166
12192215166
11186209163
10180203160
9173198156
8169194152
7166190147
6162186143
5159183139
4155179134
3152175130
2146175112
1764676

B767 Hourly Pay – First Officer

YearAtlas AirFedexUPSABX AirATIKalitta Air
15125222219153166184
14125220217153166184
13125219216153166184
12125218215153166184
11122212209149163181
10118207203146160177
9114201198142156173
8111197194139152168
7108193190135147163
6103189186132143159
598186183128139154
493182179121134148
389178175110130144
284178175101112124
18079465276111

Misc. Aircraft Hourly Pay – First Officer

YearFedex A300 & MD11 - CaptainUPS A300 & MD11 - Captain
15222219
14220217
13219216
12218215
11212209
10207203
9201198
8197194
7193190
6189186
5186183
4182179
3178175
2178175
17946

Cargo Pilot Employment Benefits

Most cargo pilot jobs include employment benefits. These include standard benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and retirement accounts. Many cargo pilot employers have also arranged travel benefits with airlines for employees and their immediate families.

As is common, the level of benefits available varies by employer. Where the differences are especially apparent is in retirement plans. Some cargo employers offer defined benefit plans (pension) while others offer defined contribution plans (401K). And some cargo pilot employers will offer a combination of both defined benefit and defined contribution.

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Cargo Pilot’s Paid Time Off

Most cargo pilots earn paid time off. This typically ranges from 2 weeks off a year up to 5 weeks paid time off a year.

In salaried positions pilots are typically awarded time off as in any other job. They earn paid time off (PTO) hours that are then applied towards days taken off from work. Some employers will provide dedicated vacation and sick time while other employers will have a combined pool of PTO hours.

Paid Time Off In the Rig System

UPS 747-8 Paid time off is a more difficult concept when working within an hourly rig system.

When a pilot calls in as too sick to work the trip they are calling in sick for is dropped off their schedule with hours then deducted from their bank to cover the credit hours that trip is worth.

If a pilot calls off sick during a trip the trip is recalculated based on the difference between what the pilot earned to that point versus what the trip was worth, with the difference being deducted from their sick bank.

Pilots are typically awarded vacation periods based on calendar weeks. When a schedule is assigned to a pilot they will have any trips touching that week dropped off their schedule with the hourly value of those trips deducted from their accrued PTO hours.

Some employers will allow pilots to split up parts of a trip to drop when staffing allows.

Flight Experience to Work As a Cargo Pilot

Some cargo pilot jobs are considered entry level positions while others are considered top tier jobs that pilots work through their career to obtain. As such the flight and work experience needed to qualify for a position varies significantly.

Entry Level Cargo Pilot Job Requirements

Most entry level cargo pilot employers operate under part 135 of the federal aviation regulations. Because of this they must adhere to flight experience requirements for part 135.

Part 135 – Visual Flight Rules

Operations that only take place in visual flight rules are limited to flying outside of clouds and not under instrument flight plans. These are more common in bush flying. This type of employer isn’t as common for cargo pilots.

To operate in part 135 visual flight rules a pilot must hold a commercial pilot license with instrument rating.

Minimum flight experience for Part 135 (VFR):

  • At least 500 hours of flight time
  • At least 100 hours of cross country flight time
  • At least 25 hours of night cross country flight time

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Part 135 – Instrument Flight Rules

This is a more common cargo pilot position as it allows operators to fly in all weather conditions.

To operate in part 135 instrument flight rules a pilot must hold a commercial pilot license with instrument rating.

Minimum flight experience for Part 135 (IFR):

  • At least 1,200 hours of flight time
  • At least 500 hours of cross country flight time
  • At least 100 hours of night time
  • At least 75 hours of actual or simulated instrument time. At least 50 hours of this must be in flight

Requirements Might Be Higher Than Regulation Minimums

Depending on the employment environment, entry level cargo employers might be able to be more selective than the minimum regulated flight experience requirements. They will default to competitive minimums – what is required to be of equal or greater experience than the average applicant.

Employers may also have higher experience requirements for different airplane types – especially for faster/larger/more complicated turbine airplanes.

Cargo Pilot Jobs Flying Jets

Most cargo airplane operators that use jets operate under part 121 of the federal aviation regulations. These regulations require pilots flying in this environment to have an airline transport pilot rating – even for first officers. Some operators may consider applicants with commercial pilot certificates if they are at or above airline transport pilot rating minimum experience requirements.

The top tier of cargo pilot jobs have a lot applicants for their open positions, even during pilot shortages. The competitive minimum time requirements for these employers are almost always well above the minimum requirements they need for regulations. Pilots wishing to apply to the top tier cargo employers will need to work as pilots for many years before having enough experience for consideration.

In the current pilot job market some of the employers that operate large jets but wouldn’t necessarily be considered as top tier employers will now consider pilots with less flight experience than in years past. If you are wanting to fly a large cargo jet it would be good to check with these employers rather than discounting your current experience levels.


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About Greg Thomson

Greg started his professional pilot journey in 2002 after graduating from Embry Riddle. Since that time he has accumulated over 7,000 hours working as a pilot. Greg’s professional experience includes flight instructing, animal tracking, backcountry flying, forest firefighting, passenger charter, part 135 cargo, and flying for a regional airline. Greg took a 5 year hiatus from flying and worked in software development and marketing. He has since returned to flying as a cargo pilot. Greg enjoys educating and helping pilots improve their professional lives and is passionate about applying technology and new methods to help with traditional challenges.