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Archive for Friday, August 24, 2007

Lone wolf’ pilot disappears over Africa

August 24, 2007

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In this undated photo provided by AirCapital DropZone.com, pilot Lori Love is shown refueling a plane. Love, a Wichita native, was last heard from an hour after taking off from Accra, Ghana, on 
Aug. 17.

In this undated photo provided by AirCapital DropZone.com, pilot Lori Love is shown refueling a plane. Love, a Wichita native, was last heard from an hour after taking off from Accra, Ghana, on Aug. 17.

— The first few hours of silence after Lori Love's plane disappeared off west Africa were not too worrisome.

The "lone wolf," as she liked to call herself, did not like mid-air chatter. She had asked for this solo flight through long stretches of sky not covered by radar.

She exchanged a cheerful, routine radio transmission with another pilot about an hour after taking off from Accra, Ghana, last Friday night, said Steve Hall. A longtime friend, he had hired her to ferry a single-engine Beechcraft from Florida to South Africa.

That was the last time anyone heard from Love. Ghana air traffic controllers failed to establish contact with her about 15 minutes later. Her expected arrival in Windhoek, Namibia, late Saturday morning passed without her wheels touching down.

Most troubling: The ace pilot and skydiver never activated a handheld emergency beacon that would have tipped rescuers to her location by GPS, Hall said.

Search efforts from several African countries have stopped tracing her expected flight path, failing for almost a week to find any sign of her plane or her emergency raft, Hall said.

Love would not have taken off from the Ghanian capital if she had not been confident her plane was fine, Hall said. A minor electrical problem in the plane's alternator switch had been fixed during a brief layover in Accra, and she had 18 hours of fuel to bridge the nearly 2,300 miles south to Namibia.

"Something catastrophic must have happened," he said. It is not known whether the electrical glitch resurfaced or if it was part of some fatal problem.

"I'm just praying she will reappear and give me hell and say, 'You gave me a lousy airplane,"' he said.

Expert in the air

If it flew, Love knew how to keep it in the air. The 57-year-old Wichita, Kan., woman was certified to teach flying and skydiving, rig parachutes and fly helicopters, gliders, single- and multi-engine planes that could touch down on either land or sea, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Never staying in one place too long, she logged 15,000 hours as a pilot and completed 4,000 parachute jumps before a bad back made her give up skydiving in 1999, her colleagues said. Love also ran her own airport in Alabama for five years before feeling the itch to move again.

She kept her late 1970s Dodge Maxivan rolling, too - 555,000 miles and counting, Hall said, tuned with a set of tools at least as old as the vehicle.

"Everything I own is inside it," Love told a National Air and Space Museum photographer for a 1997 book about women pilots. "I honestly thought by now I would be tired of that lifestyle and be ready to settle down, but it hasn't happened."

She had a couple scrapes: a brief marriage after college; a tangle with power lines that dumped her crop duster upside-down in a cotton field. Nothing she could not walk away from.

Love was not a daredevil child, but it was hard to keep her on the ground once she picked up skydiving at Kansas University, said her father, Loren Fred.

She once parachuted off a utility pole in Oklahoma, he recalled. She also dropped tools from her helicopter to lumberjacks in Alaska and defied a chauvinist crop duster in Arizona.

"He wasn't going to hire a woman pilot, but he consented to put her in a plane and in the most difficult positions and see if she couldn't get out of them," Fred said. "She did, and she got the job."

Love recalled in the book "Women and Flight" that she could not remember how she figured out girls could fly; her family did not have a television, but they would drive by the Wichita International Airport to see the taxiways lit up at night.

She later learned that flying eased the strain of scoliosis on her back, her father told The Associated Press.

"That was a relief, really," he said.

After years of moving around the country, Love settled for a time in Gainesville to pursue a doctorate in special education at the University of Florida. Three years ago, she gave up her studies and returned home to Wichita to care for Fred, 95, when his health began to fail.

Love had just started ferrying planes again, commuting from Kansas to Tampa whenever Hall had work for her. She wanted to make enough money so she could take time off this winter to finally finish her dissertation, her father said.

On her last job, she had hopscotched from Tampa to Maine, the Azores, the Canary Islands and then Ghana over eight days. She wanted to make it to Capetown, South Africa, in just one more jump after Ghana, but Hall persuaded her to add the brief rest in Namibia. Heading there, she disappeared.

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