Few people can say that, at age 26, they were flying Boeing 747 jet airplanes.
Tim Mead, a 1999 graduate of London High School and former Choctaw Lake resident, can.
Earlier this summer, Mead, who now lives in Blacklick, Ohio, earned licensing to fly the behemoth aircraft. Now, he’s winging cargo around the world for Kalitta Air based in Ypsilanti, Mich.
When Mead took his first flight lessons as a teenager at Madison County Airport in the 1990s, he didn’t dream that 12 years later he’d be in the cockpit of an 836,000-pound 747 flying mail to U.S. troops in the Middle East or flowers to the States from Central and South America.
“It just has progressed to this,” he said during a recent visit to his old stomping grounds along the runway in London.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), provided perspective on Mead’s accomplishment. She said obtaining a 747 rating is like earning a doctorate degree in aeronautical knowledge.
“From our standpoint, it is very unusual to see somebody of (Mead’s) age with a 747 rating,” she said.
Before a person can even think about manning the controls of a 747, they must obtain air transport certification. Such pilots must be at least 23 years old, post exemplary computer test scores, and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of certain types of flight time. Mead got that certification in 2006. He then signed on with Kalitta Air, which provided him with 747 training.
Mead describes the intense eight-week course as a “quantum leap” from his previous training as a regional jet pilot.
“There’s so much more to learn. It was by far the hardest rating I’ve ever done,” he said.
Mead spent the first five weeks in ground school, learning about every nook and cranny of a 747—from the ply of the tires to the number of turbine fans. He can easily rattle off the vital statistics of the aircraft:
“It’s 231 feet 10 inches long and has a wing span of 195 feet 8 inches. The cockpit is 28 feet off the ground; the tail is 63 feet high or six stories. It has 18 tires and averages 500 miles per hour. The plane can hold 360,000 pounds of gas and burns about 30,000 pounds an hour.”
The sheer size of a 747—over 800,000 pounds compared to the 50,000 to 86,000 pounds of a regional jet—makes it a challenge to maneuver, something Mead got a taste of during three weeks of simulator training. He now lives it as a first officer at Kalitta.
“With a 747, it’s all about mass management—planning ascents, descents, etc. The plane is like a cruise ship: It won’t stop on a dime and it won’t turn on a dime either. The weight of the plane requires thinking ahead,” Mead said.
An Early Start
Without knowing it, Mead was thinking ahead when he started taking flight lessons in 1995 from Jim Stokes at Madison County Airport.
“I provided his training from zero hours up to getting his private license,” said Stokes, who now is an aviation safety inspector for the FAA’s flight standards district office in Columbus.
From Madison County Airport, Mead took his first solo flight at age 16 under Stokes’ watchful eye.
“I’m very encouraged at the initiative he’s shown… His aspirations were his own and nobody else’s,” Stokes said. “I’m glad I was able to give him good basics to go on and achieve the heights he has.”
Mead praised Stokes, Jim Musgrove (the county airport’s current manager), and all the other pilots he has come to know—and still visits often—at Madison County Airport.
“The guys who fly from little airports have real world experience,” he said. “It’s what they’ve done for a career, and they can pass a whole life of experience on to you.”
After earning his private license, Mead learned to fly in the clouds without ground references to get his instrument rating. From there, he earned commercial and multi-engine ratings, getting the latter training at a flight school in Columbus.
He landed his first job as a pilot at age 19, flying turbo props (small commuter aircraft) for Air Midwest. Many of his assignments involved transporting passengers between Miami, Fla., and popular island vacation spots. It was a fun job for a young guy, he said.
Four years later, he was slicing through air currents at the helm of 50- to 90-seat regional jets for Mesa Airlines.
Prior to making the connection with Kalitta Air this spring, he obtained certifications as a flight instructor and ground instructor.
Crazy Cargo on Kalitta
At Kalitta, Mead can’t predict where he’ll be flying or what he’ll be hauling, but he knows both have the potential to be unusual.
“We go to places I can’t spell, pronounce, and, in many cases, never heard of,” he said.
Kalitta Air has a fleet of 19 B-747’s at the ready to deliver just about any type of freight to destinations around the globe. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a Kalitta 747 was one of the only planes in the air that wasn’t an F-16 fighter. The plane hauled relief supplies from the West Coast to aid disaster workers. Kalitta continues to deliver mail and packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kalitta’s cargo isn’t always so serious, but it certainly can be different and often quite valuable.
“We’ve transported a whale for Sea World, thoroughbred racing horses, precious artwork from Oslo to an art museum in Des Moines, $60 million in $100 denominations from New York to Frankfurt, Germany, and Victoria Secret in from Hong Kong,” said Paul Bishop, Kalitta’s chief pilot.
“It’s heads-up flying, very demanding,” Bishop added, noting that, traditionally, the first assignment for newly rated 747 pilots at Kalitta is an around-the-world trip. The initiation route runs from New York to Amsterdam to Bahrain to Hong Kong to Siberia and back to the States for stops in Los Angeles, Chicago and Columbus.
“It takes 15 days and it gives new pilots a chance to see the idiosyncrasies of a wide variety of (airports). They learn the differences in everything from voice inflection to aircraft control procedures,” Bishop said.
Though younger than Kalitta’s average 747 pilot, usually in their mid- to late-30’s, Mead has the chops to handle the idiosyncrasies of the 747 and the places it can take him, the chief pilot said.
“I do all of the interviewing and hiring of pilots at Kalitta. I can detect if someone has what it takes or not. Tim has it,” Bishop said.
Why He Does It
“Flying has been just about the greatest thing I’ve done in my life,” said Mead.
Travel is part of the attraction, but it’s also the people he meets.
“Flying is a good lesson in humanity. You meet all walks of people,” he said.
Also, as a pilot, he’s never bored.
“It’s a different way to make a living. It’s not for the faint of heart or for people who need routine.”
Mead works 17 days on and 13 days off. When he’s on the clock, his destinations are worldwide. Off the clock, he has a few favorite places to be—spending time with his wife, Krys, an attorney; hanging out with his buddies at Madison County Airport; or flying gliders out of the Marion County Airport.
“Some people boat; I fly gliders,” said Mead. The first “plane” he ever flew was Jim Stokes’ glider out of Madison County Airport.
The featherweight aircraft provides an interesting counterpoint to the weighty beast by which Mead earns his paycheck.
“With a glider, there’s no motor. You’re towed up to altitude, then let loose to ride rising air currents. There’s no pollution, no noise. I love it,” he said.