FedEx at Forty: David Lange

Having a whale of a time.

David Lange holds a model of the special “PandaExpress” jet that carried pandas from China. The fuselage was autographed by members of the Panda Team.

photography by Larry Kuzniewski

Attention to detail is one thing. Then there’s flying a beluga whale from an aquarium in Chicago to another in Mystic, Connecticut. Most people would consider the necessary water and tank (or giant cradle) to keep such cargo comfortable. If you’re David Lange — managing director for FedEx Charters — you think about a customized oxygen mask for that marine mammal. “If that airplane depressurizes in mid-flight,” notes Lange, “we could have a serious problem on our hands.”

For 15 years now, Lange has specialized in the exotic. And the necessary. Not all FedEx shipments fit snugly in an envelope, box, or crate. Remember the elaborate carriage that served as the centerpiece of the 1991 Wonders exhibition on Catherine the Great? It crossed the Atlantic via FedEx Charters — on a special 747 with a nose that opened to accommodate an empress’ ride. In 2010, FedEx Charters coordinated the shipment of 450 horses from Liege, Belgium, to Lexington, Kentucky, for the World Equestrian Games. The job required 22 flights over the course of a month, but every last horse, groom (200 of them), and handler arrived safely.

Lange has a relatively small team (23 members) and but a single plane (an md-11) under his watch. The value of FedEx Charters, though, is the use of grounded planes to fulfill custom orders. Say a plane is resting on a tarmac in London and Lange gets a call from Lady Gaga’s European tour manager. That plane can be in the air — custom-painted and packed with a massive concert stage. “We have a pricing model and we’ll put together a contract,” explains Lange. “If the customer likes it, away we go. We’re not scheduled by any means. The [FedEx] network is so tight. But with Charters, we’re more freewheeling. It’s why I love this job.”

Not all shipments will fit snugly in an envelope, box, or crate.

Lange chuckles at the Hollywood image of a charter pilot “flying by the seat of his pants” to get precious cargo from one exotic locale to another: “If you’re in the normal charter world, and an airplane breaks, you may be waiting 36 hours for a part. That’s not the way we operate. When a plane breaks, we’ll swap planes.”

Among Lange’s chief skills is risk management. He recalls a recent charter involving the transfer of ancient artifacts from the Peabody Museum at Yale back to their point of origin: Machu Picchu. The customer (in Peru) wanted the artifacts flown into Cusco, the airport nearest the ancient Inca ruins. Trouble was, Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet and FedEx only had two planes that could deliver at such heights. “That’s risky,” says Lange. “And Cusco is a domestic airport. There was no customs and immigration there. Eventually we dropped Cusco and delivered in Lima.”

Standby crews are often assigned charter flights, meaning the pilots may or may not know precisely what kind of cargo is secured behind their cockpit. In the case of live animals, they certainly do, as a particular flight pattern may be required to keep the whales, horses, or pandas comfortable. A “load master” accompanies the crew for each delivery and facilitates the unloading and on-ground handling of cargo.

There’s no formula to the work week at FedEx Charters. Says Lange, “You’ve got to know a lot about regulatory [matters], a lot about the planes, and exactly what our customers are looking for, because the charter business is very different from the express business.” As rewarding as the variety of challenges may be, certain jobs make Lange feel like his job is indeed a calling.

“We made a delivery in 2011 of 220,000 pounds of protein bars to Nairobi, Kenya,” he says. “It fed 4,000 people for two weeks. Those are the fulfilling [jobs]. That’s a big deal. We’re able to facilitate the shipment of medicines, food, and water. When someone needs a bunch of stuff moved in a short period of time, or to a location that we don’t fly in the network, then we get called.”

To say FedEx can fly anything anywhere, it turns out, isn’t that much of an exaggeration. With experts like David Lange analyzing the variables, the exotic becomes all too normal. “It’s just a big puzzle that needs a solution,” says Lange. “How innovative can you get?”  

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