FedEx at Forty: Kathy Morton

The captain of the ship.

Raised in a family of pilots, Kathy Morton embraced flight as easily as she did horses.

photography by Larry Kuzniewski

It’s been said that any pilot can get a job at FedEx, as long as he (or she) has flown the Space Shuttle. Kathy Morton chuckles at the notion of such lofty standards, remembering her own hiring experience — in 1985 — as a rather comfortable process, three senior captains basically measuring Morton’s credentials as a potential colleague. At the time, FedEx employed upwards of 600 pilots. Today, there are 4,515.

Morton grew up in New Jersey, spending as much time with (and on) horses as she could. With some encouragement from her father, a pilot for American Airlines, she joined the Air Force Reserves and found another ride as exhilarating as the equine variety. Still shy of her 20th birthday, Morton was told by an instructor to perform three take-offs and landings on her own. “Everything on my body was shaking,” says a laughing Morton today.

None of the major airlines were hiring in the mid-Eighties, so Morton turned to FedEx on little more than a whim. “A friend of mine was a FedEx truck dispatcher in New Jersey,” she recalls. “Back before 9/11, any employee could ride in the cockpit, and she’d done it. She suggested I send them a résumé. The rest is history; I’ve been really fortunate.” Morton has called Memphis home for 25 years now.

The workload of a FedEx pilot fluctuates, based on seniority and the company’s process for scheduling a pilot’s trips. Each month, pilots bid on a schedule, or “line” in industry jargon. In March, Morton (who currently ranks 314th in seniority among FedEx pilots) wanted to remain near home, so she flew to Atlanta and back four days a week, her workday starting at 4 p.m. and ending around 11 p.m. But trips can be of a much longer — and international — scale. Fourteen-day “around-the-world” trips aren’t uncommon.  Springtime in Paris? With the right bid, a FedEx pilot can enjoy two or three days alongside the Seine on the company tab. “I pinch myself sometimes,” says Morton. “I find myself in these fabulous cities — places people save up for years to see — and I’m getting paid to be there.”

Pilots are trained for specific aircraft (Morton flies an md-11), with three months of training required for even an experienced pilot to master an alternative jet (say an Airbus or 777). “The cockpits are different,” says Morton. “The systems are different. Learning a new airplane is pretty involved.”

“I pinch myself sometimes. I find myself in these fabulous cities and I’m getting paid to be there.”

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the job of a pilot permanently, and dramatically. “Rules, regulations, and technology are changing all the time,” says Morton. “Our time off is nice, but twice a year we have ‘check rides’ to make sure everybody’s flying a standardized way. When they put you through the ropes on a simulator, they throw one disaster after another at you. You take off, lose an engine, and have a fire. What are you gonna do? It’s stressful.” Morton notes that in 27 years at FedEx, the maintenance department has “never sent me up in a plane that isn’t safe to fly.”

As for the friendly skies, it’s more important than ever for a pilot — flying human beings or cargo — to stick precisely to a plotted course. Explains Morton, “If you’re a little bit off course coming across the ocean back into the United States, you might get Air Force scrambled on you. The skies are busier than ever. You gotta be on your game.”

Morton equates the joy of flying to what many discover with scuba diving, a freedom that can’t be replicated on terra firma. Be it day or night, the view from a cockpit at 30,000 feet is one that pilots can call theirs and theirs alone. “It’s spectacular,” she says.  

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