The 55-year-old has been chief of Lufthansa Cargo's Boeing 777 freighter fleet for exactly one decade, now. Basically, this could continue until he retires, but ten long years of managing the carrier’s fleet of cargo aircraft suffices, he says. Instead, he intends to return to the cockpit alongside the 420 other male or female captains and first officers listed on the Frankfurt-based cargo airline’s payroll. It has not yet been decided who will succeed him as fleet chief.
Dirk Vogel is a man of the first hour. In 2013, when Lufthansa Cargo got its initial B777F, he was part of the small induction team that consisted of only four members. In preparation for their new task, they were trained for weeks in simulators belonging to Boeing, and did their line training with Austrian carrier, AUA, as it was already a B777 operator.
“Taking delivery of the first B777F at Boeing's Everett production plant and flying it across the Atlantic was – up to that point – the highlight of my entire career as a pilot,” he recalls. However, because the Lufthansa inspectors discovered a number of defects in the aircraft, Boeing had to fix them before the German airline could take final delivery. This delayed Lufthansa Cargo’s first Triple Seven freighter's entry into service by almost a month.
“The B777F is a good-natured jetliner, relatively easy to operate, and easy to fly. In any case, it's not a capricious diva like the MD-11F, for example,” Captain Vogel illustrates. From 2013 onwards, Lufthansa Cargo’s MD-11Fs were gradually replaced by their successor, the B777F, totaling 15 units today, with four of them flying in the livery of the DHL-Lufthansa Cargo joint venture (50/50%), AeroLogic. The Triple Seven freighter can uplift 100+ tons, while the MD-11F is limited to carrying a maximum of 85 tons. The twin engine aircraft burns less kerosene in comparison to its McDonnell Douglas forerunner, is quieter, and capable of covering longer distances. Therefore, technical stops in Krasnoyarsk or Novosibirsk on the Europe-Far East rotations, as were required by the MD-11F, have become superfluous.
Circumventing Russia takes 1.5 to 2 hours longer, burns more fuel
In the meantime, Lufthansa Cargo, in line with most airlines whose governments sanction the bellicose Putin regime since its war on Ukraine, circumvents Russian airspace. The route now leads from Germany via the southeastern EU countries, the southern coast of the Black Sea, crosses the Caucasus, leads through the central Asian states, and continues via China to Korea, Dirk Vogel explains. There, the crew changes, and the new crew operates a shuttle flight to either Shanghai or Beijing, following the unloading and reloading of the aircraft before the next crew takes the plane home to Frankfurt. Hong Kong services, which are empty on the way to China, are routed via India for some extra revenue.
Incheon Airport has become Lufthansa Cargo's new hub in the Far East, established as result of China's strict Zero Covid policy. However, with the Beijing regime’s lifting of restrictions and the COVID-19 wave subsiding, most flights via Seoul could become dispensable in the future, allowing crew changes at Chinese airports again.
Versatile but demanding job
So, what responsibilities does a fleet commander have, what exactly are his tasks, and how does he interpret his competencies? In a nutshell, a fleet chief must be a multifunctional allrounder as well as a diplomat. Officially, Dirk Vogel, like his MD-11F predecessor, Fokko Doyen, is part of the airline's executive management. Therefore, he settles disciplinary issues. On the other hand, he needs the flying personnels’ acceptance because the days of command and obedience have long been a thing of the past. So, most of his time is spent in his office at FRA Airport, taking care of organizational and administrative issues such as the deployment of crew, simulator training plans, 24/7 manning of the hotline, organizing the layover for crew members at destinations, updating risk evaluations and alert plans, or keeping manuals and flight charts up to date. After all, “in contrast to passenger traffic, in air freight, routings change frequently which requires rapid administrative and operational adjustments.”
And another aspect is now largely history: The increased deployment of female pilots has altered the climate in the cockpits. Macho sayings have widely disappeared, Vogel reports. The tone has become softer, more feminine to some extent, he says, welcoming the atmospheric and verbal modifications thanks to changes in gender roles.
Haiti was a nightmare
His toughest mission to date: transporting voting documents to Haiti: “There was no radar service, poor traffic control. No local support at all. We had to land at a remote airport at night, and hardly illuminated. The runway was quite narrow for a B777F, so it was almost impossible to turn the large freighter at the end of the airstrip. But finally, we accomplished the task with great difficulty. The next shock came after taxiing, when we saw the cargo area. It was actually much too small to handle the aircraft properly. This Haiti flight was quite a nightmare,” he concludes. At the end, however, and despite all obstacles the job was accomplished, and the local authorities did not have to postpone the election because of missing ballots.
As the result of his ten-year record in his role as fleet chief of Lufthansa Cargo’s B777F, he pays enormous respect to the performance and achievements attained by the crane carrier. “Lufthansa is permanently in a kind of squeeze mode. The airline has done a lot right in the face of competition from highly subsidized Gulf carriers, Asian state-owned and supported airlines, U.S. carriers that shrink themselves financially healthy every 10 years via Chapter 11, and the ruinous pricing policies of low-cost carriers. Lufthansa and its group members, including the cargo arm, are among the very few commercially successful legacy carriers that have stood their ground in the shark pool of international aviation.”
And what will Dirk Vogel do come 01MAR23, when he is no longer fleet manager of Lufthansa Cargo's B777F? “I will then return to the cockpit and fly a lot again,” is his plan for the time ahead.
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