On the morning of his final flight, as his Piper PA-34 readied to depart Colorado on a cross-country journey, cargo pilot Perry C. Grant begged for someone to fly with him.
Grant, 27, had taken on as many hours as possible, but he was burning out, friends and family said -- so much so that he had fallen asleep at the controls more than once while ferrying bank records and medical supplies for American Aviation Inc. of Salt Lake City.
"He wanted to fly commercial, and I think this was kind of the carrot dangling in front of him," said his wife, Jennifer Grant. "We have three kids and it was always just, he needs to fly and get his hours. I don't understand why he wouldn't tell them no."
On that June 2005 morning, unable to find a copilot, he entered the cockpit solo.
Thirty minutes later, he crashed into a mountain near Telluride, Colo. Witnesses heard the explosion and then saw a rockslide, dust and a giant plume of smoke as the plane's wreckage trailed for hundreds of feet.
The company thinks the pilot had fallen asleep at the controls.
The Federal Aviation Administration had fined Grant's employer seven times in five years for safety violations, and last December said American Aviation did not give pilots the required uninterrupted rest. The company continued to fly, even though it failed to pay most fines and some pilots said they "had never been trained in several areas," records show.
After Grant's death, the FAA revoked American's license.
Perry Grant's final flight provides a brutal glimpse into the life of air cargo pilots, who often pocket poor wages and fly at all hours to earn their stripes, and who work for companies that sometimes blatantly skirt safety rules -- and get away with it.
Nearly every month, another cargo pilot falls from the sky, making theirs the deadliest form of commercial aviation in the United States. Behind those casualties is a booming industry that draws young pilots hungry for flight hours and the chance to rise to better-paying jobs.
Some cargo pilots themselves have adopted a nickname: freight dogs.
| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |