EVERETT — Early in his career an old hand told him: Hauling cargo isn’t as glamorous as carrying passengers, but you’ll always have a job.
The young aviator took his advice and went one better: He landed a gig flying one of the largest cargo airplanes in the world.
Today, Kelsey Hughes’ other car is a Boeing 747.
Hughes, better known as Pilot Kelsey to 430,000 YouTube subscribers, is the host of “74 Gear”, a channel geared to aviation fans, budding pilots and those who are curious: Did Hollywood get those aviation scenes right?
His twice-monthly broadcasts offer a peek inside the big rig he pilots, explanations behind hard landings and cockpit maneuvers, and reviews of aviation sequences in movies such as “Sully,” “Flight” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”
Hughes has been a frequent flyer to and from Paine Field, his home base for a year.
The air carrier he works for operates 747 cargo planes and Dreamlifters, those specially modified 747-400s that got a makeover the mid-2000s. Said Hughes: “My airline knows about my channel, but I can’t mention them specifically in any press because I’m not a PR rep for them.”
The Dreamlifter, a bloated 747 freighter — there are only four — can transport mammoth aerospace components, including the fuselage for the Boeing 787. A hinged tail section allows for loading oversize and awkwardly shaped items. Among Hughes’ pre-flight duties: checking the flight deck’s emergency exit hatch, installed above the cockpit on the six-story-tall plane. “I hope I never have to use it because it’s a long way down,” he said.
When the big beast roars down the runway and lifts off — fully-loaded it can weigh 900,000 pounds — you know it. Just ask the locals who complain of rude awakenings and rattling windows when it rumbles overhead. (The Dreamlifter isn’t always to blame for the noise, though. A Soviet-era jet, the Antonov An-225 — the largest and heaviest cargo plane in service anywhere — occasionally calls on Everett.)
These days, the Dreamlifter’s visits to Paine Field are on the wane.
The four planes continue to bring the nose section of the Boeing 767 to the Boeing Co.’s Everett assembly plant, but with production of the 787 consolidated at the company’s South Carolina factory, its role in the Everett 787 supply chain is curtailed.
On the other hand — and just as the old aviator predicted, says Hughes — demand for cargo planes and cargo pilots has risen modestly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Layovers can be tedious
Layovers on a freight run can be lengthy. With few crew members and no flight attendants to hang with, the days can be tedious, Hughes said. About three years ago, to fill the void, he decided to make 15-minute videos about the aviation industry and post them on YouTube.
With hotel rooms around the world as the backdrop, he began by offering tips on choosing a flight school and studying for a private pilot license.
“When I went through flight school there weren’t really any channels addressing some of the things I was dealing with,” Hughes said. “I either had to rely on my friends or use the online forums — and honestly, they made me feel like I was in a scene from ‘Mean Girls,’” he said, referencing the 2004 high-school clique comedy.
Speaking of movies, Hughes delights in dissecting Hollywood’s flight-deck and aviation footage. Humor is his co-pilot.
Reviewing “Airplane!,” the 1980 disaster film spoof, he points out the inaccuracy of a scene in which the captain pushes aside his in-flight meal, leaving a half-eaten slice of cake on the tray.
Hughes with a straight face declares: “One thing you’ll never see is the captain not eat his dessert.”
“Wonder Woman”? There’s no instant push-button starter on jet aircraft. Unlike a car, it takes time for the engines to rev. “Pure Hollywood,” said Hughes.
On the flip side, ”Sully” got nearly everything right, he said.
Hughes makes “some money” from his “74 Gear” YouTube channel but puts most of it toward “buying a better camera” or paying someone to add polish to the videos, he said.
Hughes, aka Pilot Kelsey, isn’t the only flight-deck or cabin crew member with an aviation-related YouTube channel.
“Fly with Stella,” with nearly 200,000 subscribers, offers a flight attendant’s perspective on airline travel. Moderator Stella Connolly says she’s back to work this month after a five-month furlough.
“Mentour Pilot,” narrated by Petter Hornfeldt, a 737 Max pilot with 703,000 subscribers, focuses on airplane design, right and wrong moves in the cockpit and flight systems. For instance, the pretty, scalloped cowling that encircles a jet engine isn’t there for show, it’s designed to reduce noise, Hornfeldt explains in one episode.
Stella and Mentour regularly appear on “74 Gear.”
In a “74 Gear” episode, Stella dishes on finicky cockpit crews and pilots who deliver halting monotone in-flight commentaries, a style that some say can be traced back to Chuck Yeager’s West Virginia, according to Tom Wolfe, author of the 1979 book “The Right Stuff.”
In a joint episode of “Mentour Pilot” and “74 Gear,” the two pilots debate the pros and cons of flying cargo versus passengers. (If you’re a fan of ginger-haired pilots, it’s a great pairing.)
Cabin crew camaraderie is a plus on passenger flights, while cargo flights are less formal. Hughes frequently dons a blue hoodie and pulls the hood over his head when he’s on the flight deck “to keep my head warm.”
‘Flying during the apocalypse’
Hughes was in the air last spring when commercial passenger flights vanished from the skies due to COVID-19 travel bans and lockdowns.
“Coming into LAX, there were only two planes in the area where there are normally 70,” he said. “There was nobody on the radio, nobody on the ground. It felt like I was flying during the apocalypse.”
The skies are filling up again as airlines slowly add back routes.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration reported that roughly 1.3 million people a day passed through checkpoints last week. That’s still lower than the 2.2 million daily averages in 2019 but a big improvement over the the 100,000 daily passenger averages that were commonplace last spring.
“It’s nice to see it’s picked up,” said Hughes. “Man, it’s like a different world since then.”
Anticipating a surge in travel, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is reportedly recalling 400 pilots, according to a Puget Sound Business Journal report. Locally, Alaska recently returned six daily flights to its Paine Field schedule and announced plans to begin daily flights to Boise, Idaho.
When the pandemic struck and the travel industry collapsed, Hughes created an online forum to help flight crews, mechanics and pilots find work and give aviators a place to “whine as pilots love to do,” he said. “I thought I could use my influence to get people connected. This is a place for them to get information and help each other out.”
Sample questions: “Can I still become a pilot if I’m colorblind or my ears pop like crazy?” (Yes and yes, and try this antidote to clear your ears …) Sample shout-outs: “Hey, I passed my IFR (instrument flight rating) test! Response: “Congratulations. Now go bust some clouds!”
Hughes also directed pilots who’d been laid-off or furloughed to apply for a job with a cargo carrier.
Passenger flights normally carry about 30% of all freight that travels by air. Stowed in the hold of a passenger plane, it’s known as belly cargo. When commercial flights were grounded due to the pandemic, air cargo rates soared and air cargo companies tried to pick up the slack.
“They’ve been hiring a lot,” Hughes said of some cargo airlines.
One small, bright spot for Boeing: Last year there were about two-dozen orders for Everett-built freighters — the wide-body 747, 767 and 777 models, although the 747 program is due to end in 2022.
Absolutely, you can be a pilot
Hughes, who grew up in San Diego, credits his aunt and uncle with inspiring his aviation career. “My aunt was a flight attendant for Pacific Southwest Airlines (it was later bought by US Air) and my uncle was a pilot and engineer — and crazy smart!”
Hughes has been flying for more than 10 years, but he didn’t always believe he could be a pilot. “I thought pilots were — like my uncle — super smart,” he said. “Me, I was a B-C student and thought, ‘I can’t do that.’”
But his uncle assured him: “Absolutely, you can be a pilot.”
Before the pandemic, pilots and aircraft mechanics were in short supply. With the pandemic, the airline industry could take three or four years to recover. Hughes is optimistic that pilot and mechanic shortages will reappear.
“There are plenty of opportunities for anyone who wants to get into aviation,” he said. Non-profit groups such as Women in Aviation International and Black Pilots of America offer support and scholarships.
After completing flight school, Kelsey was hired by a private, regional jet company, flying charter jets. That’s when he met a pilot who flew for UPS. “Flying cargo wasn’t popular,” he said. “People want to fly passengers.”
But the steady-job spiel clicked. Hughes applied for a job with a cargo airline and began training to operate a 747 freighter. Most passenger airlines around the globe have retired their 747 passenger planes, due to age and high fuel costs. Most 747 models are now used to haul cargo.
Learning to pilot a 747 required weeks of ground school and passing written and oral examinations covering all the aircraft’s systems, Hughes said.
“After that you go into the simulator, which is basically like a video game on steroids,” he said. Finally, the day dawns when “you’re out with a special qualified captain and fly the real thing,” he said.
Once in blue moon, an air traffic controller recognizes Hughes’ voice from his YouTube channel.
One controller queried over the radio: “Kelsey, Kelsey from ‘74 Gear’? Is that you?”
The captain — Hughes was the first officer on the flight — was baffled until Hughes told him about his YouTube series.
“I didn’t think my voice was that distinctive,” Hughes laughed.
He wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
“I was flying over the Andes, coming out of Lima, Peru, the other day, and it was just like, ‘Man, this is so cool, and I’m getting paid to do it,’” Hughes said.
“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty sweet job … and flying the 747 is every kid’s dream.”
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods