Have plane, will help

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My wife told me, ‘Life’s been good to us. We need to do more.’” –Dave Thompson, president and CEO of truck dealership chain TEC Equipment

In a way, a truck technician started it all, Dave Thompson told me yesterday. One of the many hard-working wrench turners at his company’s main shop in Portland, Oregon, asked Thompson what TEC Equipment, Inc., was doing to help the Haitian earthquake relief efforts. Not much, he recalled, so Thompson called down to his human resources department to see what ideas they had.

“We discussed the usual things – linking to a charity web site so people could donate money if they wished,” he explained to me. Yet Thompson felt that he needed to carry the standard on any such effort, so he wrote a note on his official stationary saying he’d match employee donations up to $5,000. Then he went home and told his wife about TEC’s charity plan.

“My wife told me, ‘Life’s been good to us. We need to do more.’ And she was right,” he told me. So he called back and upped the ante to a $10,000 match.

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Indeed, Thompson (seen at left standing in the black jacket) can afford it because he’s done well. TEC stands for “Thompson Equipment Company” and rightly so. From one small shop in 1976, today TEC has 12 locations strategically located along the west coast’s I-5 corridor including Portland, Wilsonville, Eugene and Medford, OR, Oakland, CA, three locations in the Los Angeles area and one in Reno-Sparks, NV. It’s become one of the most well-recognized full service truck dealership groups out on the West Coast, with franchises for Mack, Volvo and GMC trucks along with authorized service centers for Autocar and Cummins & CAT engines.

So good has TEC’s business been that it purchased a corporatel jet – a Cessna Citation Encore – and they don’t come cheap. While many might disdain such a plane, viewing it as “unnecessary frill” in these hard economic times, TEC’s jet suddenly took on a very different role as TEC’s charity effort quickly gained speed.

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“I came into the office the next day and the phone was literally ringing off the hook from our branches; all the employees were excited to get on board with our Haiti charity drive,” he told me. “Then one of my managers point blank asked me; ‘What about the plane?’ I honestly hadn’t thought about it, so he said we should see if a charity could use it.”

But Thompson didn’t think TEC’s jet would find many takers – indeed, Haiti’s lone airstrip is so overcrowded that U.S. Air Force plans are air-dropping relief supplies directly into Haiti’s countryside because the airport in Port-au-Prince is so jammed. But Thompson made a call anyway – and wasn’t surprised by the response.

“I called one charity and they basically told me my plane offer would just be a hassle; in essence, a ‘thanks but no thanks’ reply,” he explained to me. Pretty surprising, since a round trip jaunt from Portland, Oregon, to Haiti is nearly 7,000 miles (some 3,421 miles one way) and would cost him $35,000 in fuel and operational costs alone.

But he’d hung up the phone no more than 15 minutes when suddenly a call came through Medical Teams International – an organization similar to Doctors Without Borders. They told Thompson they’d heard he had offered up a free flight to Haiti and was that offer still good? “I couldn’t believe this; I told the guy I had just hung up with another charity that rejected it and he said, ‘Yes, a wife of one of our staffers works there and overheard it and called us immediately – we could really use that plane.’”

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So that’s how Thompson ended up volunteering to pilot the TEC corporate jet to Port-au-Prince to transport a Medical Teams International squad of seven doctors, nurses and health professionals and their supplies. His employees are pledging and raising money to pay for the costs of the round trip flight including 4,000 gallons of jet fuel.

“Everyone at TEC Equipment wanted to go beyond simply donating money to Medical Teams International and their relief efforts,” Thompson said. “We feel our donation of jet transportation is invaluable to their work. The contribution from our employees has been overwhelming.”

Thompson’s mercy flight leaves this morning from Aurora, Oregon, and will stop overnight in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, before heading to Haiti first thing Thursday morning. He already has a landing slot arranged in Port-au-Prince – Slot 592 for humanitarian airlift – courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

“This Air Force Sergeant called up me up and gave me this slot, telling me that I had a window of 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after my 9:15 a.m. Haiti time landing time,” Thompson related. “Otherwise, if I missed it, I’d be put in a holding pattern or diverted.” Needless to say, Thompson plans to be on time.

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The story doesn’t end here, however.

After the flight had been arranged, Thompson found himself back home, sitting in the kitchen reading a book while his wife watched CNN. “We almost never watch the television,” he said. “It was on because we were following the crisis in Haiti.”

Then, out of the blue, a story came on about a Portland, Oregon, couple who had just adopted a Haitian baby right before the earthquake hit – and were thus unable to find a way to bring her home. Thompson’s wife immediately pulled him from the kitchen and the next thing he knew, he was calling the local CNN affiliate for more information.

So now, if luck is with them, Thompson won’t be flying home empty on his return journey from Haiti. He has two hours on the ground to meet up with this couple’s adopted child and get her on board the TEC jet for a flight back to her new home. “It’s tough, because there’s no phone service – wireless or otherwise,” he said. “But we’ve got a satellite phone on the plane so we are hoping – really hoping – we can connect with the orphanage and make this happen.”

Sure, it’s but one small child plucked from a sea of misery – a country with over 200,000 dead and 1.5 million left homeless by one of the deadliest earthquakes ever to hit the Caribbean. But then again, it’s still one life rescued from a terrible tragedy.

Good luck, Dave. We wish you and the doctors you are transporting good speed and good fortune for the good works you’re embarking upon.

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