Pandas Aren’t the Only Rare Breed Aboard the FedEx Panda Express
This month marks the 7th time the FedEx Panda Express has been called into service.
FedEx transported Bao Bao, a three-year-old giant panda, from Washington, D.C. to Chengdu, China on non-stop flight this week via a specially decaled 777-Freighter dubbed the FedEx Panda Express.
In addition to a veterinarian and a panda keeper, Bao Bao was accompanied by FedEx team members you’d expect to see on a typical cargo flight as well as one you might not.
A FedEx loadmaster is required to fly on board a charter FedEx plane any time a rare species like a panda is involved or when the flight departs or arrives at an airport not normally served by FedEx.
Talk about a meeting of rare breeds: Only seven of more than 400,000 FedEx team members around the world are loadmasters. These are the people responsible for all aspects of a charter plane’s cargo loading and unloading, aircraft weight and balance, fueling, hazardous materials, scheduling, and so much more.
We caught up with Wayne Yankovich, who served as loadmaster on Bao Bao’s recent flight to China.
FedEx: What kinds of flights have you worked as a loadmaster for FedEx?
Wayne: It is really amazing to think about that. If there is a reason to move something, we can figure out a way to do it. One time I got to help with moving a huge rock and roll band’s world tour around. Entire circuses. Movie sets.
Once we transported an entire 747 filled with asparagus seeds!
FedEx: What things do you do for a flight?
Wayne: We make everything happen for the flight. Since charters aren’t dealing with regular FedEx staff at these locations, we have to prepare everyone who interacts with the aircraft. This means making arrangements for equipment to load and unload, figuring our refueling, weather, approvals, weight, balance, crew scheduling. Everything.
I’m an Air Force veteran and served in Vietnam, so I’ve seen it all and feel comfortable getting things done in just about any situation.
FedEx: So you’re on the go a lot?
Wayne: Absolutely. I really should keep a record, but I think I’ve been to about 60 countries in just the last 5 or 6 years.
FedEx: Have you ever worked on a plane carrying pandas?
Wayne: I was the loadmaster on a couple of previous panda charters inside the United States, but this is the first time that I’ll serve on one going to or from China.
FedEx: What is it like to fly on essentially a panda’s private jet?
Wayne: You have the opportunity to see something incredibly rare: You get just about as close as possible to this beautiful creature. You’re staring at them eye-to-eye with just the animal’s enclosure keeping you apart.
It’s funny too, because when this kind of thing happens, the people all around are so excited to be there, but the pandas are so relaxed and honestly couldn’t care less about us.
FedEx: What is the atmosphere on the plane?
Wayne: Well the entire plane is empty, except a container with the panda, and a container with bamboo for food. There’s a vet and zookeepers to watch, and that’s pretty much it. The plane is very empty.
The Department of Agriculture requires the plane to be sprayed with disinfectant before loading, and of course we will follow all other local requirements.
FedEx: How does it feel to be a part of the global panda breeding program?
Wayne: I’m a big dog and cat lover, and have always loved horses too. But these pandas are a sight to behold. And they are really good passengers. They aren’t like monkeys, who love to jump around and make a lot of noise. Pandas are pretty quiet and just laid back, go with the flow.
Captain John Hunt has been a FedEx pilot for more than 30 years. During that time, he has participated in four FedEx Panda Express flights.
We talked with Captain Hunt about his experiences and what makes it unique to fly a giant panda across the world.
FedEx: What’s it like to be the Captain of the FedEx Panda Express?
Captain Hunt: It’s a privilege to be selected as part of the crew and to represent FedEx. It’s an awesome obligation knowing what the panda represents. This whole process has to be choreographed very accurately and safely. As a member of the crew, we are very appreciative of everything that goes into allowing us to have the privilege to push the aircraft back, start the engines and complete the mission.
FedEx: What is it like knowing there is a giant panda onboard the aircraft?
Captain Hunt: It’s a happy experience because it’s so unique. There’s nothing else on the aircraft except for a loadmaster, vet, panda trainer, four members of our crew and our beautiful guest.
FedEx: What type of aircraft will accommodate the latest panda move? Is there a special reason it was chosen?
Captain Hunt: The 777-Freighter. It’s the queen of the fleet. This airplane is the most fuel efficient jet we have for this route.
FedEx: What is the route?
Captain Hunt: We are flying from Washington, D.C. to Chengdu, China, which are at virtually exact opposite sides of the world. We are leaving out of Dulles International Airport and will head up through New York and through Canada. We will cross the Atlantic Ocean near the southern tip of Greenland as we continue to Norway, through Russia and on to China.
FedEx: As the captain, what types of things do you do to ensure a smooth flight for the panda?
Captain Hunt: Packages historically don’t complain, but this is not a package. We’ll make certain that we meet the recommended temperatures that the panda needs. We’ll also select smooth air along the route. We’ll avoid weather conditions that might bring turbulence to the environment, and we’ll make every effort to be very smooth during takeoff and landing.
FedEx: Do pandas have luggage?
Captain Hunt: Bao Bao will have about 200 pounds of bamboo, 10 gallons of water and a couple pounds of apples.
FedEx: What did you know about pandas before you flew the FedEx Panda Express for the first time?
Captain Hunt: My first teddy bear when I was kid was a panda bear. I’ve been attached to them for a long time. It’s been interesting learning more about them as I’ve been involved in the FedEx Panda Express. I found them to be larger than I had anticipated initially. I was impressed with how calm and relaxed they are as animals.
FedEx: Any pressure?
Captain Hunt: There is certainly an increased focus on this shipment, but the world on time is what we do routinely. This will be no exception.