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Palmetto Bay pilot Richard Henkel, who flew film crews, relief missions — and loose chickens — dies at 60

Snakes on a plane?

Pilot Richard Henkel probably wouldn’t have been fazed. After all, he’d already hauled hundreds of chickens in a cargo plane over the Andes Mountains when they busted loose from their cages mid-flight. Feathers and fowl all over the place, even in the cockpit, as co-pilot and crew hustled the startled birds back into containment. Henkel calmly piloted the DC-7 over the rough terrain.

“We don’t know why he was transporting the chickens,” said sister Julie Henkel, as she and their mother, Joan Rindfuss Hansen, chuckle over the telephone line as they recall the story Henkel once shared with them. Were the birds en route to Colonel Sanders? Who knows.

Maybe to a movie set. After all, there was the time in 1979 when Henkel hauled the crew behind Universal Studio’s summer 1980 box-office turkey, The Island. The movie was based on Peter ( Jaws) Benchley’s beach-read, and Henkel was taking the team from its Miami location shoot to the Caribbean islands for filming of the climactic battle between the Coast Guard and a motley crew of pirates led by actor David Warner, who specialized in playing quirky villains.

The experience was just another day at the yoke for Henkel, who died at 60 of pancreatic and liver cancer on June 14. Henkel regaled friends and families with his tales of flying, something he took to not long after graduating from Palmetto High in 1970 and landing a job as a flight instructor at Burside-Ott at Tamiami Airport.

“There was never any doubt in his mind that soaring through the sky would become a lifetime career. He was affectionately nicknamed Big Bird by friends and pilots during his many years of flying to the Caribbean islands and Central and South America,” his sister said.

Henkel of Palmetto Bay was born in Chicago and moved with his family to Miami in 1962. His father, Loren Henkel, who died at 64 in 1987 of an aneurysm, was a commercial artist who worked at the Miami Herald in the early 1970s in the creative services department.

Henkel graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a bachelor’s in aviation administration in 1978. His first international flights were on the DC-6 and DC-7, carrying cargo for Rich International Airline out of Miami.

Among his missions: flying NCAA Big Ten teams to national championship games, humanitarian missions for disaster relief, and even a horse from Mexico to the Belmont Stakes in New York. “The horse was so tired by the time it came in, it came in close to last at the race, my mom said,” Julie Henkel remembered.

For more than three decades, Henkel flew for Miami-based airlines. American Eagle. Trans Air Link. Custom Air Support. IBC Airlines.

He served as the director of operations for Air Cargo Express and would add corporate jet flying to his portfolio when he flew for Avanti on the Piaggio aircraft out of Las Vegas. He served as chief pilot for Sierra West Airlines and was director of operations for ACI Pacific in Guam and captain and chief pilot for First Kuwait Oil. He made daily flights into Iraq while based in Kuwait during the war in 2003.

At the time, he operated international flights to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Middle East before retiring from full-time flying to become a flight instructor contract pilot for Dean International Flight School at Tamiami.

But his sister Julie, a kindergarten teacher at Gateway Environmental K-8 in Homestead, also remembers a family man who loved cranking Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull on his Gibson guitar, and sharing his adventures.

“He took me up in the Cessna at Tamiami Airport and we did touch-and-gos. He also let me take the wheel for a brief moment to see what it feels like. One of the most exciting times and memorable of my life,” she said. “I always saw the personal side of Rick. I was fortunate to experience the professional side and he was a brilliant pilot. I was so overwhelmed with awe.”

In addition to his mother and sister, Henkel is survived by his stepfather Claude Hansen, nephews Jonathan and William McKinney and niece Jenna Palmer.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 29 at Christ Congregational Church, 14920 SW 67th Ave., Palmetto Bay.