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LISTEN: What It's Like To Be A UPS Pilot

Jim Mayer

Louisville is home to one of the largest airlines in the world. UPS Airlines operates out of Worldport, the company’s massive air hub and package handling operation.

The company has more than 2,500 pilots around the world, and about 1,800 of them fly out of Louisville.

We were curious about what life is like for a UPS pilot — so I went out to Worldport to talk with one of them. Listen in the player above.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Captain Ken Hoke shows me around the cockpit of a 767, one of the hundreds of aircraft the company flies to transport packages to destinations around the world.

“Everything from a mom sending cookies to a kid in college to large corporate customers shipping electronics...seafood...just all sorts of things,” Hoke says.

Hoke has been a UPS pilot for 27 years. He flies mostly in and out of Asia.

On the tarmac in Louisville, it’s safety first. No detail is overlooked, right down to Hoke’s company necktie.

“I am wearing a clip-on tie, yeah," he says. Hoke says there are a couple of reasons for that particular fashion choice — the first one: safety.

"Whenever you’re around machinery, it’s a good idea to have tear-away clothing," Hoke says. "There have been incidents of people getting neckties caught in machinery. Not a good thing if it’s wrapped around your neck.”

The clip-on also makes it easier for Hoke to quickly get comfortable during his long flights.

“(We) leave Louisville, fly up to Anchorage, Alaska, which is our hub for Asia," he says. "Then we would fly from Anchorage over to Tokyo. And once we’re in Tokyo, we would start about a week and a half of inter-Asia flying.”

That includes stops in places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

There’s not much downtime overseas for Hoke and his fellow pilots. When they’re not flying, they’re resting, preparing for the next leg or exercising to ward off jet lag.

After about two weeks abroad, the 51-year-old Hoke returns to Louisville, where he’ll have two weeks off.

“We have two kids still at home, and my wife does a fantastic job of handling two kids and her job and me not being home," says Hoke. "So I try to take some of the weight off of her when I get home.”

Hoke is a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He developed an interest in aviation in his early teens, and studied airport management at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Part of that curriculum was to go out and take some flying lessons, and that was the beginning of the end for me," he says. "Once you take a few flying lessons, if you’re going to get bit by the bug, that’s when it will happen.”

Most of Hoke’s UPS flights are uneventful, but there are challenges to overcome from time to time.

“Where the fun comes in with flying is when you do have those typhoons in the South China Sea, or a line of thunderstorms between Minneapolis and Memphis and you’re trying to get into Louisville," he says. "That’s where all the training, all the experience, that’s where that all kicks in.”

Hoke loves his job, but says it’s not for everyone.

“If you love it, and you love doing it, you need to do it," he says. "So far, none of my kids have shown any interest in aviation, probably because they see me disappear for two weeks, and they’re like, ‘Dad’s always away from home, what a miserable existence', so maybe they don’t want to be pilots.”

Hoke not only loves flying, but loves to write about it on his blog.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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