Air Panda: Flying Cargo-Class With a Very Special Delivery

May 1, 2003

View a photo gallery of the pandas' journey from China to the Memphis Zoo. Go >>

In this fourth of five articles for Panda Week (details in sidebar), National Geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim recalls her 16-hour flight from Beijing to Tennessee with the newest stars of the Memphis Zoo: two giant pandas named Ya Ya and Le Le.

Well, I never thought a day would come when I would ship myself home—let alone with two of the rarest animals in the world.

Let me explain.

Being on assignment for National Geographic Today can mean a lot of things. This time, it meant riding a FedEx cargo plane halfway around the world from Beijing to Memphis with two giant pandas—a two-year-old girl named Ya Ya and a five-year-old boy named Le Le. China is loaning the pandas to the Memphis Zoo for ten years, where researchers will try to uncover the secrets of the pandas' finicky feeding habits.

The world was waiting to understand more about these solitary animals...It was time for these pandas to start a new life in America.

The day of departure, there would be nothing but star treatment for these two exotic animals—Chinese police made sure our panda motorcade got through the streets of Beijing, from the zoo to the airport without any holdups.

When we arrived at the airport, I almost thought we'd run into another event. There were lights, cameras, and a private jet. Nope, no Rolling Stones—this frenzy was all for the pandas. I mean, there were actual panda paparazzi! I guess celebrity knows no species.

Sitting on the tarmac was a robust looking FedEx plane. There was no mistaking it, that one was ours. Emblazoned on the body of it was a huge drawing—a story-high image of a giant panda. The FedEx cargo plane was donated by the company solely for the purpose of bringing the animals from China to America. They called it "The Panda Express," naturally.

200 Pounds of Chilled, Wet Bamboo

But before you get any strange ideas about this first-class flight—let me set you straight. The plane was cavernous and cold. The cabin temperature was kept at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius). Great for the pandas, who prefer it chilly, but not so great for us humans. We all donned extra layers and blessed whomever it was on the team who had had the forethought to bring blankets.

The pandas were riding in first class, all right. They had room to sprawl in supremely large crates—crates that could probably hold a golf cart. They had sliding doors, bulletproof glass—the whole nine yards. Apparently, the Chinese zookeepers had never seen anything like it and quickly dubbed them "panda mansions."

Continued on Next Page >>


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