FedEx at Forty: How It All Began
Three of the company's earliest employees recall how FedEx got off the ground.
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We’re not aviation experts, but we imagine the first thing a brand-new airline needs is airplanes. That’s how Bruce Popp came to be the 18th employee hired by FedEx; in fact, Fred Smith is the only person in the company who has been employed longer.
In the early 1970s, Popp was working for Pan-American Business Jets, based in Roswell, New Mexico. A French aviation firm, Avion Dessault, had teamed up with Pan-American to design and build sleek little luxury jets for business commuters. “Well, by the time we got delivery of 35 of those planes,” says Popp, “the market just fell out.”
The company was so desperate to get rid of its surplus inventory that they considered trading one of the airplanes for a taco factory in Mexico, thinking it would be easier to sell the factory than the airplane.
“But then this Fred Smith fellow comes along and buys the whole lot,” says Popp, whose job was to fly the planes to Little Rock, where they would be converted into cargo planes. This wasn’t an easy task.
The twin jet engines were removed and sent to General Electric for upgrades, since they would need considerably more power when loaded with freight than a few business passengers. According to Popp, Smith found an engineer named Gomez Jones to design and incorporate the larger cargo doors and freight-hauling interiors, with an Arkansas firm, Little Rock Aeromotive, doing the conversions.
Popp had delivered three of the Falcons to Smith in Little Rock, he says, “when I realized I was working myself out of a job. Smith would have all the Falcons, and I wouldn’t have any work.”
So he talked with Smith about joining his company. Like so many early FedEx employees, he was intrigued by this concept of an all-package airline. Popp had earlier worked for his father in the construction business, and remembers when he had to ship a huge diesel engine crankshaft by truck, a slow and costly process. “During the interview, [Smith] told me the world needs a way to move freight that’s more reliable than the regular airlines, and right away it clicked with me. I thought, ‘Smith is right about this; the world needs this.’”
Popp was hired on May 1, 1972, as an airplane mechanic. He was quickly promoted to line supervisor, shop supervisor, and then moved into the engineering department. “What I’m doing now is strategic project engineering, which looks at how high technology can be applied to the airline.”
Projects include new fire suppression systems for the cargo hold, better security systems, lighter cargo containers, and something he calls the “magic window” — a device that lets pilots see through fog, clouds, or smoke. This works better than radar: “So if you’re going through a mountain pass at night, or in fog, with high peaks on either side of you, it’s just like you’re flying in daylight.”
Things weren’t always so sophisticated. The Falcons could only carry a payload of about 6,000 pounds (by comparison, just one of the modular containers in today’s larger jets holds that much). And the little planes were bulk-loaded, which sometimes caused interesting problems.
Petroleum companies often sent sample gallons of gas, “and every so often one of those containers would leak,” he says, “so you can imagine having a gallon of gasoline leaking inside an airplane.”
But the night that especially stands out for Popp was when a live cobra, shipped from a zoo, somehow got out of its box and slithered around the plane. A hub employee caught it and thought it was a harmless black racer. That was until they unloaded the empty shipping carton, clearly labeled LIVE COBRA. “That was kind of interesting,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Popp has witnessed countless changes in airplanes and technology over the years. “When we started off here, the hub was like a big tin barn, about a quarter of a mile long and as high as a garage. We had three old National Guard hangars and one conveyor belt, and I was told the capacity was 15,000 packages a night, and that was it.”
Today, the hub sprawls across 863 acres, stretching along Democrat between Airways and Lamar. One night last year, the company sorted more than 19 million packages.
“If you do a hub tour, it’s hardly believable from what it was like back then to what it is now,” says Popp, “and I watched it grow.”