The CARGO PILOT
BY MARY ANN KOENIG
On a recent trip to Santiago, Chile, pilot Manuel Cabianca looked out the window from the cockpit of his 747 and saw television news crews gathering on the tarmac below.
The Vero Beach resident and captain for Atlas Air regularly flies cargo in and out of Santiago. But that night, there was an unscheduled change in the routing.
He’d had a few days lay-over in Santiago after flying there from Campinas, Brazil, an airport about an hour and a half from Sao Paulo. The normal route would be to return directly to his base airport in Miami. But the company asked him to take the plane back to Campinas instead.
While on the ground in Santiago, Cabianca examined the paperwork for this off-schedule flight and saw the name Global Sanctuary for Elephants. Ramba, a female Asian elephant, estimated to be around 60 years old, was trussed inside a metal crate and about to be loaded onto his plane. It was big news in Santiago.
Air-lifting a 7,000-pound elephant over the Andes Mountains was a first for Cabianca. Atlas Air transports goods and cargo all over the world, and Cabianca has flown for the airline for more than a dozen years. He’s seen his share of exotic and alluring cargo. “But this was my first elephant,” he says.
Cabianca’s job as a freight pilot takes him around the world. His regular route is out of Miami and into Latin America, but the routes can be unpredictable. Sometimes it’s Bogota, Colombia; other times it’s Tokyo, where he always looks forward to authentic sushi. But it can also be an around-the-world venture — a schedule that can take seven or eight days, encompassing five different 12-hour legs to circle the globe.
These talented pilots carry merchandise around the world with little recognition for their role in keeping goods and commerce flowing on an international scale.
As a young boy, Cabianca always dreamed of becoming a pilot. He grew up in Sardinia, an island region of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. His home was only a few miles from a military base where German, English and American aircraft, such as Tornados, F-104 Starfighters and Phantom jets would fly night-time sorties over Europe. “I remember vividly, in the summers, hearing the aircraft taking off,” he says.
He and his father would go out to the airbase to watch the planes, and the whine and roar of their engines caught his imagination. “After their take-off, I’d get on my bicycle and cut through the fields to see them coming back 15 to 20 minutes later, watching them landing at night.”
That experience, and the sound of those aircraft, penetrated a young psyche and drove Cabianca’s ambitions to fly.
He spent summers in London during his high school years, where he perfected his English. Later he relocated there and found work in catering and bartending. But, something in the air was still calling him.
On a trip to Rome to visit a friend, they took advantage of a soaring school offering promotional flights. What was supposed to be a 40-minute demonstration turned into an hour and a half glide over the Italian countryside. The instructor had quickly handed the controls over to Cabianca and a trial run at flight became what he remembers as “something that felt very natural, not difficult or complicated.”
The glider caught a draft of vertical hot air and began to climb on an air mass that was ascending faster than the glider was descending. Cabianca piloted the craft in slow, tight circles.
As he maneuvered the soaring glider, he looked out over mountainous Italian terrain. Just opposite them, off their wing, was a hawk, making identical circles. “We were duplicating what birds can do but in a completely different way,” says Cabianca. “Without using any energy, the bird was managing his descent and that allowed him to stay afloat. I thought it was fascinating.” It was another touchstone for Cabianca’s journey to become a professional aviator.
But he learned that flight training in Europe would be an expensive venture.
After extensive research he identified Long Beach, California, as his best flight school option. Training through the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration system would be recognized in Europe, and fuel prices in America were much less expensive, which brought the training costs down. There was also a good-sized fleet, and Southern California offered a busy air traffic corridor. He wanted to be good enough to accomplish his training in one of the busiest flight areas in the world, Long Beach being just 20 minutes south of the Los Angeles airport (LAX).
He would return to Long Beach for his instrument rating qualifications, and upon graduation, he and two friends rented a plane and flew themselves from Long Beach to LAX so that Cabianca could catch a flight back to London.
After six months back in the U.K., he quit his job and moved to Florida, taking a position as a flight instructor in Fort Pierce. He then flew a Cessna C-208 Grand Caravan, a turbine-powered plane for a sky-diving company based in Opa-locka, where he shuttled divers over the drop-zone. Throughout this time Cabianca took the route of many aspiring commercial pilots. He would acquire flight time and update his resume and hand-carry it around to the big corporate airports — Fort Lauderdale Executive, West Palm Beach, Lantana — looking for work.
And it was flying that brought him and his wife, Susan, together. They met while she was taking her flight training at Paris Air in Vero.
His next job was piloting a Learjet for a medical evacuation service for four years before signing on with Atlas. And he and Susan decided to stay in Vero. “It’s not far from major airports,” he says. “It’s safe and also close to the ocean.”
As an Atlas pilot, Cabianca has had the opportunity to fly what he calls “an iconic aircraft.” Nicknamed “The Whale” or “Queen of the Skies,” the Boeing 747 jumbo jet’s size and presence captivated him. “The very fact that it could carry 450 people for a 12-hour flight just amazed me,” he says. “That plane was designed in the late ’60s back in the days when aircraft designs were created on the backs of cocktail napkins. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
As Cabianca knows well, the jet is capable of transporting immense amounts of cargo. This past spring, the belly of his plane was filled with 98,000 kilos of flowers — more than 200,000 pounds. That route was Bogota to Miami. Mother’s Day was approaching and the U.S. market was awaiting its bouquets.
Then, in October, there was the midnight rendezvous. Like star-crossed lovers they were brought together on a dark tarmac in Santiago de Chile. The jumbo jet and the pilot who loved to fly her came to the rescue of a 7,000-pound damsel in distress.
Ramba, the elephant, had been used in circus acts in Argentina and Chile, prodded and jabbed with bull-hooks into uncomfortable positions in order to perform spectacle demonstrations. But those brutal days were behind her, and she had spent several years in a sort of limbo at a zoo in Santiago, until Global Sanctuary for Elephants stepped in. They found compassionate donors to help fund her flight to the sanctuary in Brazil. With Cabianca at the controls, Ramba would finally be free.
“I’m glad she will live the rest of her life with other elephants,” he says. “They are highly sociable animals and she has been alone for way too long.”
The loose membership affiliation of cargo pilots is known as Freight Dogs Anonymous, Order of the Sleepless Knights. Their black-sky take-offs and late long-hauls across continents and oceans mean they’re awake and working while the rest of the world sleeps.
So perhaps for Ramba, during one sleepless night, it finally took a freight dog flying a whale to carry this elephant to a well-deserved, long-overdue permanent home.
Lives in: Vero Beach
Occupation: Professional aviator “but waiting for a call-back to be Master of the Universe”
Family: Wife, Susan, two cats, Gibbs (aka Slaghathorn Maximus) and Ziva
Education: Pilot training and instrument rating in Long Beach, California
Who or what inspires me: Enzo Ferrari