Pilots say pay can be as low as $15,000 a year, a stark contrast to the six-figure salaries for pilots employed by larger carriers. Most earn $30,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on their employer, experience and hours, interviews show.

In death, the disparity continues.

"The secretary would get twice as much life insurance as the pilots. I didn't want him to get more than anybody else. My fury over that issue is that he got half of what everyone else got."

- Lara Lennon, about her husband's employer

Insurance rates for cargo operators are sky-high, experts say, because of the danger of the industry. Freight dogs for smaller companies have difficulty obtaining private insurance and must rely on their employers.

Lara Goldman Lennon, whose husband, Thomas, died in a crash in Maryland in 2004, said Epps Air Service offered $25,000 life and $25,000 accidental death and dismemberment coverage to employees. The second policy excluded pilots.

"The secretary would get twice as much life insurance as the pilots," said Lennon, a former human resources executive. "I didn't want him to get more than anybody else. My fury over that issue is that he got half of what everyone else got."

A CULTURE OF RISK

Experts say the very profile of the industry -- older planes, less-experienced pilots, longer hours, overnight flying, dangerous weather -- adds safety hurdles.

"Those are all little risk factors ... that require additional oversight and training on the part of the company, and that is usually missing in most of the cargo operators," said John J. Goglia, who served on the National Transportation Safety Board for nine years as an outspoken safety advocate.

"Alone, any one of those means nothing. All of a sudden, we have a string of them coming together, and all of a sudden we've got an accident," Goglia said.

Royce A. Read, 32, an Oklahoma State University graduate who made the dean's list and aspired to join NASA, viewed ferrying freight as a ladder to his dreams.

"He always loved and dreamed to fly," said his wife, Stephanie Read. "Loved it, loved it, loved it."

Like other young pilots, he found work in cargo. "They were the ones that were hiring pilots hungry for hours," she said. "While other people build their résumé, pilots are trying to build their hours."

In August 2001, the Learjet piloted by Read and Brian O'Laughlin, 30, was destroyed while departing Tompkins County Airport in Ithaca, N.Y., at 5:42 a.m.Destined for Michigan with 400 pounds of auto parts, the pilots got approval to take off on a morning so foggy the copilot had said, "I can't even see the other end of the runway."

The NTSB cited as the crash's cause a "failure to maintain a proper climb rate while taking off at night," along with the poor visibility.

Read kept an eye on safety issues, and he held close a green accordion folder full of safety notations as he flew for Ameristar Jet Charter of Texas. "He had told me and several other people on many occasions: 'If anything should happen, make sure you get this green folder,' " his widow said.

| 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 |

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