Panda Express

By on April 18, 2013

Photo: Kaneville resident and FedEx pilot Steve Gramley recently flew two pandas from Chengdu, China, to Vancouver, Canada. Here, he takes time out from the flight to pose with his new friend Da Mao. Da Mao and Er Shun were later flown to Toronto. Courtesy Photo

Kaneville resident flies pandas from China to Canada
by Cheryl Borrowdale
KANEVILLE—Steve Gramley isn’t sure how he was chosen to pilot FedEx’s “Panda Express,” but flying two giant pandas from China to Canada on March 25 was the most interesting flight of his career.

The Kaneville resident, who works as a pilot for FedEx, was one of two pilots who flew the MD-11F aircraft that transported Er Shun, a 5-year-old female panda, and Da Mao, a 4-year-old male panda, from Chengdu, China to Vancouver, Canada. A second set of pilots took the pandas on to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper met the plane for a welcoming ceremony.

The pandas were transported as part of a cooperative conservation agreement between Canada and China. Er Shun and Da Mao, a breeding pair, will spend five years at the Toronto Zoo, followed by another five years at the Calgary Zoo. It’s the first time in 20 years that pandas have been loaned to a Canadian zoo.

Gramley began working for FedEx in 2001, after several years flying regional commuter flights for Northwest AirLink and a stint in the Marine Corps as a crew member on a cargo plane. He said he was surprised to have been chosen to represent FedEx on such a prominent flight.

“I don’t know how my name came up,” Gramley said. “My chief pilot called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m looking for guys to take these pandas. Do you want to?’
Normally, it would be management pilots who get opportunities like that, not just the ordinary line guy like me. Do I think it was any great achievement that I was picked? Not really, but I am flattered that he thought I would do a good job.”

Gramley is a MD-11F first officer and typically flies the Memphis-to-Chicago route for FedEx, although he has flown all over the world for the company. On a transpacific flight, the plane’s cargo hold normally carries 100,000 pounds of cargo, but the Panda Express flew light.

“On this particular flight, there was only about 15,000 pounds because all we had on this particular airplane was the two pandas; some equipment for the pandas; three handlers, one of whom had been with the pandas since birth; and a zookeeper from the Toronto Zoo,” Gramley said.

The flight was a unique experience for Gramley, who got to leave the cockpit once the flight was underway and see the pandas.

“They were just hanging out,” he said. “They had bamboo and were just chewing on it, and they didn’t seem bothered by flying. One of them was a little upset when he was getting loaded, but as soon as we got the door closed and got them moving, they were pretty much fine for the rest of the flight.”

Gramley got quite close to the pandas and was surprised by how gentle they were.

“They were literally right there, essentially in something like a large dog cage. I could have touched them if I wanted to. They are fairly docile animals, and I think you could actually touch them and be fine,” he said.

Visiting Chengdu was also a highlight for Gramley, who went to its famed panda breeding center to see the going-away ceremony for Er Shun and Da Mao. Though Gramley has been to Shanghai and Hong Kong before, he said visiting Chengdu gave him a better understanding of China.

“I’d never even heard of Chengdu, but it has 14 million people in it,” he said. “It really got me understanding how big of a country it is.”

Unlike Shanghai and Hong Kong, where many people speak English, Gramley said he had a hard time finding anyone who spoke English.

“It was like seeing a real Chinese environment,” he said. “It was a pretty neat place.”

FedEx donates the flights and has transported several pairs of giant pandas from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, including the pair that were at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo from 2000 to 2010. There are only an estimated 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild, and the research center loans out breeding pairs of pandas for ten years to zoos involved in conservation efforts around the world.

The company will also be transporting roughly 700 pounds of bamboo from the Memphis Zoo, which maintains a 10-acre bamboo farm to provide food for its giant pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le, to the Toronto Zoo two to three times a week.

Both the panda exchange between countries and FedEx’s Panda Express flights are heavily promoted, Gramley said.

“Everybody works hard at promoting the whole panda thing—the exchange—because it’s really as much of a diplomatic thing as anything else,” Gramley said. “The reason Canada is getting these pandas is because the prime minister had requested it, and they’d been working on it for a long, long time. It’s sort of a relationship thing between the two countries.”

FedEx donates the panda flights because it generates so much publicity, he said.

“I can’t begin to guess what it cost FedEx to pull off that flight, but when you look at all the press they got, it was another way to reach people. When they arrived in Toronto, the plane had a big old panda decal on it to show the whole thing off, and when they had the welcome ceremony in Canada it was in front of the plane. Who doesn’t love a panda?”