Risking life and limb to spread their club’s message, Nashville Kiwanians fly high.
Story by Julie Saetre
Photos by Curtis Billue, Jack Brockley and Red Bull
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon this past September, many residents of Nashville, Tennessee, chose to stay inside, relaxing in the refreshing chill wafting from hard-working air conditioners. Kelly Koeppel wasn’t one of them.
Instead, the Nashville Kiwanis Club member was perched atop a precarious-looking winged contraption, which itself rested on a 30-foot-high platform rising from the Cumberland River. In minutes, four of her fellow club members would push Koeppel and her craft off the platform’s edge, sending her plummeting into the water below.
While the scenario might sound like some sort of ill-advised hazing ritual, the Kiwanian quintet actually volunteered to take on this bizarre task as part of a Red Bull Flugtag event. The Austria-based energy-drink manufacturer has hosted flugtags (a German term meaning “flight days”) around the world for more than two decades. Participating teams construct their own human-powered aircraft and then, on event day, launch the craft into a body of water.
Team members also must don themed costumes and perform a one-minute skit to music before taking the plunge. Judges choose winners based on a combination of flight distance, creativity and popularity with the public.
Why would a group of otherwise sane Kiwanians agree to such a peculiar task? Simple: To raise awareness of their club, its community contributions and the Kiwanis mission.
Or, as craft designer and team ground-crew member Chad Sutton puts it, “We really got the Kiwanis name plastered all over the place. It was pretty cool.”
Koeppel is no stranger to generating positive publicity. As president of k2forma, the company she founded in 1997, Koeppel specializes in helping clients with advertising, marketing, design and digital media. When Red Bull announced that it would host its second Nashville-based Flugtag, she immediately saw the promotional opportunities for her Kiwanis club.
Founded in 1916, the Nashville Kiwanis Club boasts a membership roster of more than 240. To keep the club thriving, officers strive to recruit enthusiastic members across a wide range of ages. Its Young Professionals group holds monthly socials for those ages 20 to 45 to engage them in networking, volunteering and forming new friendships. Some 80 Nashville Kiwanians fall into this age range.
“That’s been the largest area of growth,” says Victor Legerton, the club’s executive secretary.
Koeppel approached the Young Professionals about involving both the group and the club as a whole in Flugtag. The Young Professionals got on board, and soon the entire club agreed to back the project.
“(It went) from humble beginnings to ‘everybody’s involved,’” recalls Koeppel. “It’s been fun to see all the different people and interests that have jumped on board. It’s really awakened a lot of members in the club and connected with them in a different way.”
Adds Legerton, “Which is one of the things we had hoped the Young Professionals group would do: revitalize and reenergize some of the longtime members. And (the Flugtag) project certainly has done that. It’s also brought in a couple of new members already.”
Sutton is one of them. An advanced lead engineer at GE Aviation, Sutton has an extensive background in aerospace mechanical design, including testing and manufacturing of aircraft and rocket engine components. His father, a longtime Nashville Kiwanis Club member, asked if Sutton would be willing to design the Flugtag craft.
“He always spoke of this group that he was in,” Sutton says. “He tried to get me to come out a few times before, but I always viewed it as one of those old-man groups where they’d wear hats and tassels. I mean, I knew nothing about Kiwanis at the time. … But (the Flugtag project) sounded interesting and like something fun to do. I came to a meeting, talked to a few people, got to know them. It was quite different than I thought it would be, and I wound up joining the club two weeks later.”
He faced an unusual challenge with the Flugtag craft, as Red Bull strictly regulates construction guidelines. Vehicle size and weight are limited, the craft must be unsinkable, and building materials must be environmentally friendly, among other very specific requirements.
“Basically, we were building a big paper glider,” Sutton explains. “(We were) figuring out, ‘What does this thing look like? How do all the parts fit together? How in the world are we going to assemble it and transport it?’ And you’ve got to worry about things like ergonomics and safety upon impact to make sure that our pilot is safe. The human factor was a big part of it.”
Cost also entered into the equation. Once the craft makes its splash landing, Red Bull reps tow it away. Team members can’t salvage any of the wreckage.
“The humor in the issue is that you’re building this thing that needs to carry a person safely to the water, but it’s literally a ‘dispose and throw-it-away’ airplane,” Sutton says. “It’s almost like pulling a Bic razor out of the plastic, using it and throwing it away.”
Up on the Flugtag launch platform, Koeppel waited atop Sutton’s finished craft, dubbed the “Flying Kiwana.” According to the back story created by the club, this half koala/half iguana sprouted wings after drinking a Red Bull. The idea came from a stuffed toy that Legerton bought at the 2000 Kiwanis International convention to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. He invented a past for the creature, and club members decided to theme their flight around it.
But Koeppel wasn’t thinking about Kiwana’s mythical beginnings. She was focused on the moment at hand and her task ahead as the craft’s pilot. Sutton had incorporated a simplified control system into the Kiwana. The team’s four ground-crew members would run while pushing the craft off the launch pad. Then, by pulling a lever, Koeppel could make the nose of the craft rise.
“There’s no way, unless our runners were from Kenya, that we were going to get enough air speed to actually take off that (launch) pad,” Sutton explains. “We were going to have to drop a good eight to 10 feet, get enough air speed with the additional gravitational pull and then she’d be able to pull back on the stick, level the plane and fly forward.”
Koeppel took that responsibility seriously. The team’s goal was not to make the most spectacular crash landing, as many other participants opted to do. The Kiwanians wanted to surpass the existing Flugtag flight-distance record of 258 feet. Knowing she’d need strength to maintain her perch on the Kiwana and control its pitch, Koeppel had worked with a personal trainer three times a week leading up to the competition. Now, as she anticipated the team’s turn to launch, she concentrated on mental preparation.
“I knew that I had a very specific job to do, and I knew that I needed to stay very centered in order to do it,” she says. “When I was on top of the plane, it was a combination of trying to quiet my mind and center myself, meditate and bring my heart rate down. But also it was a combination of just appreciating that moment, because it (had been) so much work, and it was going to be over so fast. So I was just sitting there with my eyes closed, trying to feel the sun on my face, just slow that moment down.”
Sutton, meanwhile, was coming to terms with the reality of his role as one of the ground-crew members. Not only does the crew push the craft off the launch platform, they follow it into the water. So when the master of ceremonies announced that it was go-time for the Flying Kiwana, he’d be taking a leap of his own. Clad as explorers searching for the mysterious Kiwana, Sutton and the rest of the crew performed their 60-second skit as more than 60,000 spectators looked on. Before he knew it, the crew was running at full speed, pushing the flight machine.
“Your adrenaline is pumping so hard that all things black out,” Sutton says. “Sure, we’d done push trials, but we hadn’t done push trials on the edge of a 30-foot cliff.”
Koeppel had a similar reaction: “It was terrifying. I was very much (thinking), ‘Don’t crash.’ I didn’t want to faceplant like some of the planes. (But) I have good reaction time, and I was really prepared. It’s over the edge and I’m like ‘Pull. Pull. Pull.’ And then, blam, water. And that’s it. Then it’s over.”
When she broke the river’s surface, thankfully unharmed, Koeppel had no idea whether her flight had succeeded or failed. Once on dry land, she learned that not only had Kiwana glided to the water, but it had achieved the day’s second-longest flight distance.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do, what we envisioned,” she says. “It was a one-shot deal, and we got it right. It was amazing.”
At the end of the competition, even though the Flying Kiwana didn’t break any records, its members accomplished their most important goal.
“It would have been nice to set the world record,” Sutton reflects. “But the goal of this was to make a physical presence of the Kiwanis name, and I think we did that. And we did it in front of a whole lot of people.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine