Jumbo jets departing from Raleigh-Durham International Airport appeared to pierce the gray, overcast sky early Saturday morning, but Nancy Callaway wasn’t looking upward, she was staring straight ahead at a line of motorcycles that roared onto the tarmac behind the United Parcel Service headquarters.
Callaway, of Matthews, and her husband, Roger, were looking for their daughter, Robin Callaway, one of four Special Olympics athletes riding on the backs of motorcycles driven by members of the Raleigh chapter of the Blue Knights, a nonprofit club of active and retired law enforcement officers.
The Blue Knights had formed an honor guard that was going to kick off an annual “plane pull” that has become one of the largest single-day fundraisers for Special Olympics NC. Nearly 80 teams of five people were going to grab hold of a thick hemp rope and take turns seeing who could pull a 30,000-pound American Airlines jet 25 feet the fastest.
“We’re going to pull this plane every three minutes for the next four hours,” promised Kevan Anderson, an officer with the Garner Police Department who was helping to organize the teams.
Before the competition started, more than 100 people had gathered in the aluminum bleachers that had been set up in front of the UPS tarmac that was flanked by two of the company’s jumbo jets.
The Callaways looked for their daughter, Robin, 30, who will participate on the Special Olympics softball team this summer.
Robin Callaway has participated in the Special Olympics since she was 15, in softball, tennis, bowling, flag football and basketball.
Nancy Callaway wasn’t in the least worried about her daughter riding on the back of a motorcycle. Nancy Callaway said Robin and her dad last year rappelled down the side of a multi-story building in Charlotte. This year, she plans to take her husband’s place and rappel with her daughter down the Wells Fargo building in downtown Raleigh.
“It was only 15 stories,” Nancy Callaway said about the Hyatt House her daughter and husband took on last year. “The Wells Fargo in Raleigh is 30 stories.”
The teams had traveled to the Triangle from all over the state. A group of corrections officers from Bertie County wore T-shirts that boasted of the “Enforcers.” Another team consisted of Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies sponsored by Maple View Ice Cream in Hillsborough.
The front of the Maple View team’s T-shirts read, “The Udder Group,” or TUG for short.
“TUG, because that’s what we do,” said Ricky Watson, about the pulling the plane.
Anderson glanced at the American Eagle jet that sat behind him on the tarmac. The silver plane, with red, white and blue sashes on its tail fin, sported the event’s logo just below the pilot’s window.
“How many of you have not pulled a plane before?” Anderson asked team members.
A few hands shot up.
“No problem,” said Anderson, who explained that the thick coil of rope had been marked in sections with bright orange tape. The team organizer instructed competitors to make sure they were behind the orange tape. The five pullers for each team could all be on the same side, or alternate from side to side.
The first to compete was the “Presidential Team,” whose members included Keith L. Fishburne, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics NC. Fishburne and his plane-pulling cohorts posed for pictures before heaving and hoeing the big plane 25 feet.
“Great job, great job Presidential Team,” said Megan O’Donnell, a spokeswoman with Special Olympics who served as mistress of ceremonies for the day’s event.
The plane pull has an impressive record of raising money that enables intellectually disabled athletes from all over the state to participate in Special Olympics programs free of charge. The event has raised $1.2 million over the past six years, Fishburne said.
“We’ll raise about $100,000 this year,” said Fishburne, who pointed out that the teams each paid $800 or more to compete Saturday. The event’s biggest sponsor, Credit Suisse, contributed $50,000.
The teams consisted of members of law enforcement, area businesses, civic groups, even neighborhood friends.
Jack Jeffers, a member of the Food Lion Retail 1 team from North Raleigh, echoed the helping, charitable spirit displayed by many teams members.
Jeffers, who works as a grocery store manager, said another team member, Harvey Murrell, had called him to explain what the event was about and ask him to participate. “I wanted to help out. My brother is quadriplegic,” Jeffers said. “Food Lion has helped me with events that my brother has been involved in. The least I can do is help them out when they have something going on.”
Fishburne said the concept of a plane pull to raise money started in 1999 in several other states that were looking for fun, innovative ways to raise money.
“In the early days the planes were much larger and there were 20 people to a team,” he said. “We figured out with a smaller aircraft there would be smaller teams and our fundraising ability would increase.”
By the day’s end, the “Enforcers” were crowned champions after pulling the American Eagle 25 feet in 7.85 seconds.