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RED CROSS HEROES: Penkhus flies to the rescue of Haitian quake victims

March 4, 2011

Bob Penkhus may be best known around Colorado Springs for selling cars.

But it’s his airplane and his selfless actions to help those in crisis that will earn Penkhus the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross’ Humanitarian Award on March 10.

Penkhus, president of Penkhus Motor Co., watched in horror the TV news reports of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. The amount of death, suffering and destruction moved him, and he knew that simply cutting a check wasn’t going to suffice.

“When something strikes your heart like that, you just have to do something,” he said.

That something was offering up his Beechcraft King Air B350 to fly doctors and nurses to Haiti to try and help.

“I was the only alternative,” Penkhus said. “They couldn’t get on military aircraft. There were no commercial flights. I figured if I didn’t do it, they weren’t going.”

Penkhus has been around airplanes his whole life; his father owned some. He started with gliders, then moved up to powered aircraft and now has almost 7,000 flying hours under his belt. He usually takes teams of sales representatives to out-of-state car auctions or training events. But he knew his 10-passengar aircraft — which he described as “the mac daddy of the King Airs” — was uniquely suited to haul doctors, nurses and supplies to Haiti.

He posted his, and the plane’s, availability on an aviation-based Internet site. A group of doctors from Atlanta quickly took Penkhus up on his offer, and he was making plans to go get them when Dr. Rick Meinig of Front Range Orthopedics reached out to him. Meinig said 16 Colorado Springs doctors and nurses were ready to go. The choice was obvious.

After securing a co-pilot, Dave Bennett, Penkhus met the medical team at the hangar. They had thousands of pounds of donated medical supplies.

“When the doctors showed up with all their boxes of stuff, I about died,” he said. “There was a massive disconnect between the capacity of the airplane and what they wanted to take down.”

They unpacked boxes and stuffed supplies in every nook and cranny of the plane. Then, half the team flew to Ft. Lauderdale on commercial flights while Penkhus took the rest to Haiti on Jan. 25, 2010. After dropping that group and the supplies in Haiti, he flew to Florida to pick up the rest of the team.

“Honestly, they’re the true heroes,” he said. “Those guys and gals went into the city and took the risk of walking through the streets. … I just gave them a ride.”

Penkhus figures they flew more than 30 hours that week, amassing 7,139 nautical miles. They shuttled 44 people in and out of Haiti and hauled more than 2,000 pounds of medical supplies. He also ponied up more than $20,000 to pay for fuel and other plane-related expenses.

The Colorado Springs community responded upon his return and held fundraisers to help offset some of the expenses. Members of the Broadmoor Community Church raised thousands, he said.

“That was just one of the coolest things about this event, how so many other people contributed,” Penkhus said. “No one had a clue if they’d be reimbursed but they figured they’d deal with that later.”

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