By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — Special Olympics are known for having unusual fundraising activities. Saturday’s event at the former Indianapolis International Airport was no different.
It was the ninth annual FedEx Plane Pull Challenge. Teams of up to 20 competed to see who could pull a FedEx Boeing 727 aircraft 12 feet the fastest and with the lowest combined weight among team members.
”It’s just one of those things you can walk away from saying, ‘I pulled a Boeing 727 aircraft,’” said Amanda Shelley, public relations and marketing manager for Special Olympics Indiana. “It’s very ominous the first time you see it. It’s not a little Cessna or biplane; it’s a jumbo jet. It’s something you can be very proud of yourself for doing.”
There were 74 teams registered this year, some from as far away as Hammond and Lawrenceburg. That’s 15 more than last year and the largest field ever for the plane pull.
”We continue to grow in the nine years we’ve had the event,” Shelley said. “We started with 15 teams in 2002, so it’s really grown. We’re not sure if it’s just people finally starting to get the word out.”
The Plainfield Correctional Facility has organized a team for five years now, called the Plainfield Pirates.
”The first couple of years were kind of rough because we were new to it and didn’t know what was going on,” said Antoine Stewart, an officer at the correctional facility and the Pirates’ captain. “But now we’re having a lot more people getting into it.”
He admits there’s an intimidation factor the first time you approach the jumbo jet. But ultimately it’s all about momentum.
”It’s really just getting the plane moving,” Stewart said. “Once you do that, the motion will come with it.”
Katie Hemlock, captain of Fundex’s team, didn’t know what to expect the first time she participated in the plane pull.
”You’ve got to get it rolling,” she said. “Once you do, you have to keep it moving.”
Last year Fundex had a burly guy in the back who tied the rope around his waist.
”I’ve never seen anyone else do that,” said Hemlock, adding that they also strategize by arranging people on the rope by height. The shorter members are up front so they aren’t lifting the rope too high for people behind them.
Stewart says the event is very competitive.
”We’re still fairly new, but you get some of these teams that get into character and have outfits,” he said. “It’s pretty fun to see.”
For Hemlock, “It’s more about the spirit and fun and the bragging rights of pulling a 727 airplane.”
Shelley acknowledges the plane pull is a strange event. A FedEx employee and Special Olympics volunteer actually learned of the idea from a similar event conducted annually in Virginia. He got FedEx to donate a plane here and the competition began. Records aren’t compared year to year because the plane’s weight differs based on how much fuel it has. This year it was fueled for a flight to Milwaukee. The fastest times being recorded Saturday were in the five- and six-second range.
”It’s not something you get to do every day, to say the least,” Shelley said. “This is a great team-building opportunity also. It takes a lot of communication and teamwork to be able to pull a plane that weighs 160,000 pounds.”
With so many participants, the plane pull has become Special Olympics Indiana’s largest single-day fundraiser. With each team contributing at least $1,000, Shelley said they expected to bring in more than $115,000 total, which exceeded their goal.
”It’s great news for us,” she said. “It’s been some tough times. Everybody’s been feeling the crunch. Just to be able to have confidence in this event and know that it’s not only going to bring in important funds but awareness for Special Olympics feels good.”
For more information about Special Olympics Indiana, call 328-2000 or visit the website at www.soindiana.org.