Flying Tigers
Hard landing in Kanazawa
A hard landing in Japan

Around the world in a Piper Cub (more or less)

In the spring of 2001, Maurice Kirk threw a monkey wrench into a re-enactment of the great London-Sydney Air Race, first flown in 1919 and again in 1969. But nobody expected the self-proclaimed "flying vet" to enter the race with a 60-horsepower Piper Cub that came from the factory with a 12-gallon fuel tank. Liberty Girl was an L-4 variant built for the US Army as a liaison plane. It came out of the Lock Haven PA factory in 1943, two years before Maurice was born. He was disqualified on the first day -- he landed short, in a field near Lyons instead of the official destination of Cannes -- but managed to stick with the race (though generally far behind) for the next four weeks, covering 12,095 miles (19,465 km) straight-line distance, though surely quite a bit more as the Piper Cub wanders.

I wrote about this incredible journey in Air&Space / Smithsonian magazine. Having successfuly reached Australia, Maurice shipped the plane to New Zealand for an around-the-island race. Then, in 2004, he decided to bring Liberty Girl home by way of China, Russia, the Americas, and presumably Africa, though it was never explained how he hoped to cross the South Atlantic. He prepped for the event by flying back to Australia by way of Norfolk Island, with the second leg requiring more than eleven hours in the air.

Route from Darwin to HokkaidoIn November 2004, Maurice made an incredible crossing from New Zealand to Australia, as the first leg of his around the world odessey. (Liberty Girl had gone to New Zealand to take part in an around-the-island race.) He spent the winter raising money, equipping himself, and getting permissions, and finally, on April 25, 2005, he set out again from Darwin. The map shows his route from Australia to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where he arrived on October 7.

After spending two weeks waiting for a weather window to make the perilous crossing to the westernmost of the Aleutian islands, Maurice decided that it couldn't be done. I don't know what he had in mind, beyond hoping for a 30-mph tail wind, but from Sapporo to Adak Island is a bit more than 2,000 miles, or more than twice the distance between Norfolk Island and Australia. I suspect he had hoped to land in Russia and brazen his way onward, as he had done so many times before in his life: from Kamchatka Peninsula to Attu Island is less than 500 miles, well within the range of a Piper Cub carrying Maurice's preposterous fuel load of 90 US gallons, a bit more than 340 liters. (The Japanese had occupied Attu and neighboring Kiska Island in 1942, to safeguard the homeland from US bombers flying from the Aleutians.)

In any event he turned back, intending to crate the Cub and ship it to Alaska. But the Japanese authorities wouldn't let him export the airplane evidently feeling that it had to leave the country the same way it came in. The alternative was to fly it to Korea, whose rules were less stringent. On October 22, 2005, he was flying south when he lost engine power over a mountain near the castle city of Kanazawa, on Japan's main island of Honshu. The only open space was a playground filled with children, so he turned onto a roadway under construction, apparently taking out some utility wires and grazing two parked vehicles before coming to rest against a truck.

Kirk in the Caribbean After nearly two years in police custody, Liberty Girl was released to her owner in August 2007. Since there was now no possibility that he could fly to Korea, Maurice was allowed to ship her to the state of Maine in the northeastern US, where she was rebuilt in the handsome fashion you see here. In the spring of 2008, Maurice flew the refurbished beauty south, intending to make his way to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina (and still claimed by that country). How he planned to reach Africa in anyone's guess, but we will never find out. Somewhere in the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and 80 miles from the nearest shore, Liberty Girl's engine quit for the last time. Maurice fired off a Mayday signal and ditched the little plane in the Caribbean.

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

G-Kirk still afloat Maurice had filled the area behind the rear seat with styrofoam peanuts, which is why Liberty Girl floated so high, but in time she must have sunk, because a search plane turned up no sight of her. The photograph was taken by a crew member of the US Coast Guard helicopter that plucked Maurice out of the drink.

He then acquired a Piper J-3 and decided it would be a hoot to fly to Crawford, Texas, and knock on President Bush's door. Of course this involved busting the four-mile no-fly zone around the Bush ranch. (The president wasn't in residence at the time, else the no-fly zone would have been much wider.) It was quite a landing. The wind was blowing at 40 mph, but Maurice was able to hail a passerby and persuade him to tie the Cub to a tree, so it would be safe to shut the engine down.

Then the police arrived.

You can guess how that worked out, right? Arrest -- confiscation of all his electronics (GPS, radio, camera) -- ten days in a mental hospital -- deportation -- and revocation of his flying privileges by the British CAA.

All his life, it seems, Maurice broke the rules and trusted that his wits would see him through. He was repeatedly rebuked and occasionally arrested for landing on golf courses, flying under bridges, making a citizen's arrest of a court officer, and other offenses against the public order, including -- finally and fatally -- the purchase of a Lewis machine gun from the First World War. First he lost his veterinarian's license, then he lost his freedom. I defy anyone to make sense of all that followed. I spent two hours skimming his blog, much of the time with my index finger pressed on the Page Down key. He was jailed; he went on hunger strike; he was released and jailed again; and all the while he raged against the machinery of justice, and of course making things worse for himself.

Liberty Girl II in Africa

There was time and chance for a last hurrah, however. Perhaps Maurce managed to have his Cub shipped from Texas to the UK, or perhaps he bought yet another 1940s Piper aircraft, for by 2016 he was flying Liberty Girl II with the somewhat modified registration of G-KURK. Again, she was tricked out as an L-4 observation plane from the Second World War, and again he made his way to a Mediterranean island to begin another odyssey, this time competing with vintage planes in the 8000-mile (13,000 km) Crete2Cape Vintage Air Race. Of course he lost his way, this time in Sudan; he was ruled out of the race but tagged along anyhow. Apparently the Sudan landing was another hard one and the repairs fairly rough, as shown above.

There was at least one further crash landing, and perhaps a third, and in the end Liberty Girl II was another write-off. "He was never going to spend his retirement on a cruise ship," his daughter Belinda told the Daily Mail. "This is more his thing." He did return in time to the UK, though without his airplane and with further adventures with the Welsh police and justice system. As of August 2019, he's still behind bars and ranting at those who are arrayed against him. I wish him well, but I do wish he'd just shut up, at least until he's free again.

In the meantime, Maurice, blue skies! -- Dan Ford

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Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

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