As Tawn Makela grapples with the controls of the weather-ragged Learjet, she hears the wind rustle pieces of the American economy.
Crammed inside the plane is a mountain of clear plastic bags, each stuffed with checks: Paychecks. Rent checks. Mortgage checks. Tax refund checks. Checks to buy companies. Checks to settle divorces.
She's carrying nearly 2,500 pounds of paper worth more than $1.5 billion. That's just for the first leg of Makela's shift, which takes her from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio.
By the time the sun rises, and she returns home, she will have spent nearly nine hours in the air -- picking up and dumping off a fortune in Syracuse, N.Y.; Windsor Locks, Conn.; and St. Paul, Minn.
"It's more money than most small countries have in their entire economy," said Makela, 35, a Chicago-based pilot for AirNet Systems Inc. "What we do is cool. It's cool to say that you are responsible for so much cash."
To collect their money, U.S. banks depend on pilots such as Makela -- known by some as "freight dogs" -- to transport an estimated 36.7 billion checks a year from one financial center to another.
Sometimes this pricey cargo is sent directly to a bank's regional offices, which will process the check and pay out the money. Other times, the checks go to a clearinghouse -- such as a branch of the Federal Reserve -- which, for a fee, will route the funds appropriately.
But that's about to change. And the freight pilots' way of life is threatened.
Check 21, a federal law that took effect in late October, lets financial institutions send digital copies of these checks to one another over the Internet. That will allow banks to collect payment sooner, and eliminate the physical process of moving checks across the country.
The nation's leading financial groups say they will gradually phase in electronic processing this year. The Federal Reserve Banks, which already have rolled out new Check 21 software and services, will cut their number of check-processing centers by nearly half over the next year.
At the same time, consumers are leaving their checkbooks behind in favor of debit and credit cards.
In 2003, the number of electronic payments surpassed check payments, according to a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve and electronic payments companies. Payments made by paper check have declined at an annual rate of 4.3% since 2000, according to Federal Reserve officials. Electronic transfers, however, have grown 13.2% annually.
"In a computer-based society, it seems antiquated and old-fashioned to still be flying these pieces of paper across the country," said John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Assn. "It's not going to happen overnight, but banks will make this change. Unless cargo companies can fill those planes with other goods, it's inevitably going to impact the pilots."
AirNet employs 165 freight pilots to fly paper checks for more than 100 of the nation's top financial institutions. These pilots see themselves as daredevils -- the toughest and scrappiest men and women in the skies. They boast that they do whatever it takes to get the checks delivered on time, even if it means flying in bad weather or helping with the loading and unloading of the cargo itself. Theirs is a lineage that includes World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh, who flew bank deposits during the 1920s.
AirNet's 128 planes, many of them speedy Learjets, are small enough and nimble enough to pack and leave at a moment's notice. Safety is important, but so are deadlines."If there's a runway, we'll fly. Ice? No problem. Tornadoes? Go around 'em," said pilot Joe Pyka. "We had guys flying checks to the banks during the hurricanes in Florida, even though the banks were shut down. Nothing stops us."
But Pyka, 31, wonders how long freight pilots like him will be needed, whether flying checks or other cargo that must move quickly.
"People worry about it," said Pyka, who joins Makela on her nightly routes. "I've heard people ask, 'Are we going the way of the buggy whip? Are we going to be obsolete?' All you can do is hope and keep flying."
'Study the Sky'
Most nights, the pilots follow the same monotonous paths through the sky, marking the miles by the glow of each town and the occasional appearance of the northern lights.
"At a certain point, you've talked about everything there is to talk about," said Makela, who has worked for AirNet for the last five years. "So you sit and study the sky."
She dreamed of flying as a child, and often lay in the grass near her home in Bollingbrook, Ill., to watch planes crisscross the sky.
It wasn't a destination that drew her, or the lure of faraway lands. She longed to be up in the air, to live among wet clouds and the rush of speed.
Her parents gave her a flight on an aerobatic glider as a 16th birthday gift. She steered the glider through upside-down loops and twists that left her giddy.
"After that, I was hooked," said Makela, who taught at a flight school before joining AirNet. "I didn't care how, or what kind of plane. It didn't need to be a glamorous job. I just needed to be in the air."
Flying checks satisfied that desire. Makela works four days a week, and averages 100 hours of flying time each month.
In an industry where flying bigger planes often means earning a bigger paycheck, she makes less than many commercial passenger pilots. AirNet's most experienced pilots, who are the ones flying the fleet's Learjet 35s, top out at about $83,500 a year, according to research by Aviation Information Resources Inc.
Pilots with major airlines fly about 80 hours a month and earn as much as $180,000 annually. They're away from home more because their schedule often requires overnight layovers.
"The AirNet pilots go home at the end of their day," said Kit Darby, president of Aviation Information Resources. In this field, "it's a luxury to be able to say you sleep in your own bed every night."
Makela likes the regularity of her shift because it allows her to spend more time with her husband and infant son. But many "freight dogs" will readily give up the stability to work with major airlines or become private pilots for executives.
"These are the farm teams of flying," said Jon Safley, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots, a Washington trade association. "When the major airlines hire, they want these folks because they've literally been through everything."
But today, job options are slim. Several larger cargo companies have either consolidated or downsized in recent years. Many airlines are struggling to survive: United Airlines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines have either cut their employees' pay deeply or are negotiating to do so.
Pyka, also based in Chicago, said he had been seeking another job for three years. He could have taken jobs with regional passenger airlines, or a gig with a larger cargo company. But he would have had to take a pay cut to leave AirNet.
So he keeps hauling.
Pyka and Makela left Chicago's Midway International Airport eight minutes late because traffic delayed a courier and his bags of checks. As soon as the bags were tossed into the back with Makela's brown-bagged lunch, Pyka taxied the plane and gunned it. The engines rumbled so loudly the pilots shouted to be heard.
Up. Up. Land and lake tilt dizzyingly away as the pilots hurried to make up the time in the air.
But on this night, fierce headwinds slowed the jet and tossed it in the air like a child playing with jacks. Makela and Pyka smacked their heads into the ceiling with every violent jostle.
The moon rose in the east, fat and blood red, as they headed toward Columbus. Green and gold lights of the city's streets glowed in the distance.
Columbus was the first destination for many of the checks they were transporting. Bank of America had bags that needed to get to Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles. Wells Fargo's checks must get to Phoenix, Minneapolis and San Francisco, while Bank One's bags would end up in Dallas and Columbus.
In Columbus, all the bags would be sorted, then loaded onto other planes. Some bags would make as many as four transfers in one night.
If Makela and Pyka got into Columbus late, the checks wouldn't make their connection. They would be bumped to the next flight, often several hours later.
That could throw off the banks' schedules, which had staggered deposit deadlines throughout the night. A missed deadline could mean millions of dollars' worth of lost interest.
"Time?" Pyka asked.
Makela glanced at the clock on the plane's control panels. They were running two minutes and 13 seconds behind. Pyka mumbled about possible shortcuts. Makela reached for a thick stack of maps.
Then, the control tower in Columbus radioed the plane: There was a traffic jam in the air above Columbus. Slow down. Drop altitude. Get in line.
It was official: They were going to be late.
Easing behind an airliner, Pyka flipped the switch for the airbrakes. Suddenly, the pilots slammed down onto their seats, hard enough to hear flesh slap metal. Checks shifted in the back like piles of sand, as the plastic bags curved and flexed against the jet's aluminum hull.
The plane dropped 6,000 feet in less than a minute. Makela grinned. "Fun, huh?"
As the pair pulled up to the hangar at Port Columbus International Airport, a gigantic digital clock on the outer wall of the hangar counted time in bright red numerals. The pilots landed 13 minutes late.
"We can make it up on our way to Syracuse," Makela said.
Timely transport has long been critical to the checking industry. The reason, say financial experts, is the "float," or the time between when a check is deposited and when the funds are collected. Because a check can't begin to accrue interest until it has been deposited, banks are continually looking for timesaving short cuts.
Historians believe that checks were first widely used in the early 16th century in Europe. When Amsterdam emerged as a stronghold for international shipping and trade, merchants leery of keeping their money at home deposited it with Dutch bankers. The bankers would pay the account holder's debts whenever they received a written note.
The first printed checks date back to the 1700s: The British coined the word "check" after English bankers used serial numbers on the slips of paper as a means of tracking -- or "checking" on -- the notes.
New Cargo Ventures
Hauling checks and other financial documents is expected to make up about 60% of AirNet's revenue in 2004. While Check 21 hasn't yet cut into its banking business, AirNet's ventures into other arenas -- including medical cargo and legal documents -- are quickly growing.
The pilots have started carrying tissue samples and other freight for life-science companies. They've transported film prints to movie theaters across the country, and boxes of video games to retail outlets preparing for the holiday rush.
"The movies are fun. It's the same sense of excitement you feel as with the checks. Without us, the film wouldn't be able to be seen," Makela said.
And they're now flying radioactive materials, such as laboratory experiments and toxic pharmaceuticals, which require pilots to wear a sensor to track how much radiation they've been exposed to. "Is it a hazard? Yes," Pyka said. "Whatever they need me to fly, I'll do it."
Makela and Pyka leave Columbus early with a new load of checks, but the winds slow the flight to Syracuse. They touch down at 10:55 p.m. They have 60 seconds to drop off several hundred pounds of cargo, take on new freight and get back in the air. Makela pulls the plane up to a hangar, where a team of two-dozen workers in neon-orange vests is waiting for them on the tarmac. She shuts down one engine. Before it can stop, Pyka leaps over his seat and flips open the top half of the door hatch. His hands a blur, the pilot blindly grabs for any box, bag or bin he can reach and flings them to the workers.
With seconds to spare, Pyka finishes and crawls back into his seat. Makela, already radioing the tower they are ready to leave, steers the jet back onto the runway. Pyka locks his seat belt just as the plane's wheels lift off the ground.
Pyka looks down at the plane's clock. It's 10:56 p.m. -- right on schedule.