British pilot, 71, missing again in vintage air rally across Africa

A British pilot who has been taking part in a rally of historic aircraft across Africa has gone missing for the second time in a week.

Maurice Kirk’s next of kin have been informed, while organisers of the Vintage Air Rally (VAR), in which a fleet of historic flying machines are aiming to travel from Crete to Cape Town in South Africa, say they have confidence in his ability to land his plane in the wild.

Kirk, 71, from Bristol, vanished during a previous leg after taking off in Sudan. He turned up safely, but he and the rest of the rally – more than 40 people in all – were then detained in Ethiopia, where the authorities accused them of illegally entering the country’s airspace.

Following intervention from the Foreign Office in London and the US embassy in Addis Ababa, the rally was allowed to leave Ethiopia and head to Kenya.

They all arrived safely in Kenya on Friday apart from Kirk, a former vet and acquaintance of the Hollywood actor Oliver Reed, who has been flying a 1943 Piper Cub plane called Liberty Girl II.

On VAR’s Facebook page, organisers gave the good and bad news. “The rally has just arrived in Kenya after the Ethiopians managed to figure out where they, we and the Sudanese managed to mess up,” they wrote.

“For the second time in two flights, Maurice is a no-show. We have launched (again) an overdue aircraft process (now Kenyan rather than Ethiopian). We suspect he has run out of sunlight and landed somewhere.

“Next of kin have been informed. His ability to drop his cub into a small field for the night is impressive. We hope he is OK.”

VAR and Kirk had a falling out before his last disappearance and the organisers said he was no longer officially part of the rally. “But we have of course been helping him with everything (fuel, accommodation, oil, permits, flight plans etc etc) until Kenya,” the statement says.

Kirk is no stranger to controversy. In 1979 he got into hot water after dropping in on a hang-gliding rally in Wiltshire in a wooden biplane. When his craft was examined, it was found to be riddled with woodworm and had a bird’s nest in one wing.

He was arrested in Japan after his first Piper – Liberty Girl I – crashed in Kanazawa; he walked out of custody in nothing but a kimono and neck brace. Kirk was also once arrested for landing a plane at George W Bush’s Texas ranch. Liberty Girl I eventually met a watery end in the Caribbean, but none of it has put him off.

Even before his disappearances this week, the rally had not been plain sailing for Kirk. He almost crashed Liberty Girl II in France when he suffered an engine failure as he approached Cannes. “That so easily could have ended in a tangled pile of twisted aircraft and Maurice,” he wrote on Facebook.

On 19 November, he posted: “Where am I? I keep getting lost, which is why I really wanted to go via Gibraltar and just keep the sea on my right to Table mountain [near Cape Town].” He has suffered a puncture and propeller failure.

But he has clearly enjoyed the trip. He said Dongola in Sudan “will always be a memory of what life is really all about … the fried fish fresh out of the Nile … the coffee you can [stand] your spoon up in!”