Steffen Kappelmann knows how to avoid traffic when he is called out to visit a sick cow, horse or pig. He takes to the air
@ Andreas Fechner

The flying veterinarian

  • TEXT JOCHEN BRENNER
  • PHOTOS ANDREAS FECHNER

Steffen Kappelmann knows how to avoid traffic when he is called out to visit a sick cow, horse or pig. He takes to the air

“The calf slips out of its mother and onto the straw in the barn, still wet and practically blind,” says Steffen Kappelmann, almost whispering now. “It just lies there, connected to its mother by the umbilical cord, recovering from the exertions of the birth. What do I do? Nothing. Blood and oxygen continue to circulate through the umbilical cord – for several minutes, even. Then the tiny calf draws a brief breath before going quiet again. Eventually, it starts breathing regularly, shakes itself, and moves it limbs.” A glow enters the eyes of the 220-pound, six-foot-two vet with the receding hairline and hands the size of excavator shovels, as he says: “I just watch quietly as a new life begins.”

Kappelmann has an eye for the magic of livestock farming, despite the fact that today, cows are required to produce more milk and bear more calves than ever before. Cows are the smallest production unit in a system of industrial farming. With milk and meat prices constantly fluctuating, farmers are under increasing pressure. And Kappelmann’s part in the system is to keep this small unit healthy and performing well. But nobody can stop him from regarding the birth of every calf as a small miracle.

 It’s important to know this to understand why the 42-year-old is a flying vet, the only one in Germany. His practice is in Sachsenheim, just outside Stuttgart – a city in a cauldron and the traffic-jam capital of Germany. Last year, Stuttgart residents each spent an average 60 hours in traffic. Kappelmann’s farmers are in villages dotted all around the place, so he almost always has to drive through the cauldron.

Politics would benefit from a bird’s eye view.

Steffen Kappelmann, 42, Veterinarian

Ten years ago, while administering shots to the horses at a riding stable, he received an emergency call saying a calf was stuck in its mother’s birth canal and the farmer was afraid it would suffocate. Kappelmann jumped into his car, drove onto the highway and got caught in traffic. Germans consume an average of 60 kilos of meat a year and like milk to be cheap, but most of them would object to pulling off the road for a vet with a flashing blue light on his way to a cow. The calf died and the mother didn’t survive, either. For the animal’s owner, this was a financial blow, and for Kappelmann, a personal one because the miracle did not take place.

What would ultimately set things in motion were the following words, invoked more in defiance, as a wish or even a long-harbored dream than in all earnestness: “If only I could fly.” After a few years, the idea became reality in a training helicopter at Stuttgart Airport. Kappelmann accrued the 60 hours of flight time required for a private license and then spent two years flying a four-seat helicopter. One day, his instructor introduced him to a gyrocopter, and the marriage was made. Gyrocopters are powered by a propeller engine, and the air stream turns their rotor blades. The farther these are tilted backward, the greater the lift. A ten-meter strip is enough to land on, and 100 meters suffice for taking off again. “Short farm tracks beside cow barns are ideal.”

100 meters dirt road suffice as a runway for the nimble gyrocopter

100 meters dirt road suffice as a runway for the nimble gyrocopter

© Andreas Fechner
Dr. Kappelmann wants to obtain a professional pilot license so he can land whenever and wherever he needs to © Andreas Fechner

Dr. Kappelmann wants to obtain a professional pilot license so he can land whenever and wherever he needs to

© Andreas Fechner
He is a horse and cow expert © Andreas Fechner

He is a horse and cow expert

© Andreas Fechner
If Steffen Kappelmann makes a mistake at one farm, all the other farmers in the area will find out pretty quickly © Andreas Fechner

If Steffen Kappelmann makes a mistake at one farm, all the other farmers in the area will find out pretty quickly

© Andreas Fechner
Gyrocopters are powered by a propeller engine, and the air stream turns their rotor blades

Gyrocopters are powered by a propeller engine, and the air stream turns their rotor blades

© Andreas Fechner
Steffe Kappelmann has an eye for the magic of livestock farming © Andreas Fechner

Steffe Kappelmann has an eye for the magic of livestock farming

© Andreas Fechner

 But things are not quite as simple as that. German law requires aircraft to land at an airstrip, not just anywhere, and in principle, this is a good idea. The law extends to gyrocopters, which are neither that expensive nor cost much to maintain. So although amateur pilots may not take off in their front yards, Kappelmann learned while coming to grips with German administrative law that every law has its exceptions, and also that a lot can be achieved with a friendly attitude. That and plenty of patience – because good things are worth waiting for.

He knows this from his own experience as a young boy who spent every free moment in the cow barn, then made his way through school to become a veterinarian with a flying license. Kappelmann studied in Munich, worked as an assistant, earned a PhD and gained some experience. In 2000, he received his veterinary license and three years later rented a small apartment and got to work in the neighborhood. “Hello, my name is Dr. Steffen Kappelmann,” he would say when greeting a farmer, “I’m a cattle and horse specialist.” Eventually, the 20 farmers he “took over” from his former boss numbered 200. “It’s a business based on trust,” Kappelmann explains, “If I make a mistake at one farm, all the other farmers in the area will find out pretty quickly.”

Today, Kappelmann is authorized to land at 27 isolated farms. The first time he lands at a farm, he is often met by a farmer’s entire family, who watch with surprise as the “cowboy of the air” climbs out of his gyrocopter wearing a helmet, sunglasses and coveralls. But they are reassured when he starts unloading the rubber boots, endoscope, ultrasound equipment, aprons and medications he has brought with him.

For all intents and purposes, Kappelmann has reached his goal. Nobody gets to a sick cow faster than he does. But for someone as ambitious as him, achieving one’s goal is not enough; it’s just one step along the way. Take the gyrocopter for instance: With his sport flying license, Kappelmann is permitted to make only 50 flights a year, and to land only where the authorities say he can. Now if Kappelmann held a professional license, he could land wherever he wanted. “I’m working on it,” the veterinarian says, “and it will take up lots of time, but I’m very good at family logistics.” His son, daughter and wife, who is a small-animal vet, repeatedly manage to bring him down to earth.

Kappelmann joined the Sachsenheim city council in 2009 and now has his eye on a regional seat. “I would like to see consumer protection addressed from a practitioner’s perspective,” he explains. He even has a timeline all worked out: At 50, he would like to be elected to parliament, in either Berlin or Brussels, it doesn’t matter which: “Politics would benefit from a bird’s eye view.”