The Last Flight Plan

Aviation pioneer Jean Rich succeeded because she was smart and tough. But when she died, her family and her airline went into a tailspin.

Nobody could get the indomitable Jean Rich to slow down until cancer finally grounded her. One of the first women in the United States to own and operate her own airline, she was relentless in her pursuit of success. At the headquarters of Rich International Airways, located in the northeast corner of Miami International Airport along NW 36th Street, she'd eyeball each invoice, castigate troublemakers, chew out regulators, question every discrepancy, bark orders at the men who surrounded her. She dictated how her four children behaved and with whom they could associate. And she openly bossed around her second husband.

For months she ignored the pain in her abdomen as the disease took hold. She ignored her daughter's pleas to seek medical advice. She ignored the telltale swelling. By the time doctors finally cut her open in 1991, the cancer had already run rampant.

Members of her family took their places at her bedside at South Miami Hospital. The daughter, Linda Harrington, scrutinized the pages of her medical chart, fetched her slippers, checked her medicine, monitored her breathing (she was asthmatic), and hollered for the nurses. The sons -- David, Stephen, and Michael -- hovered nearby. The stepfather, Bill Meenan, second in command at her airline, sometimes left the hospital room, cellular phone in hand, to keep the business running.

Rich International Airways was having a good year, in large part because just twelve months before her death, Jean Rich had entered into a business deal with a competitor, a deal both risky and controversial, but which also held promise for the airline's future. In a paradoxical way, that deal would also help to define the lives of the daughter and husband when their quarrel over its implementation replaced Jean Rich as the center of their world.

Jean Rich had struck a deal with a man known both as a hero and a tireless competitor among the owners of small, so-called unscheduled aviation companies that fly cargo or passengers on ever-changing schedules. George Edward Batchelor, a decorated World War II pilot, created a niche for small independents in the aviation business by purchasing surplus military aircraft and converting them to commercial use as charter planes. He shaped an industry that from its outset has been characterized by low prices, high maintenance costs, grueling hours, and mountains of potential perils. Along the way, he made millions of dollars and shared that wealth as a high-profile community benefactor. (Batchelor is chairman of public television station WPBT-Channel 2, as well as founder of the the Batchelor Foundation, which has financed research at the University of Miami's School of Medicine. He is also a major contributor to the Zoological Society of Florida.)

To expand her airline's passenger capacity, Jean Rich agreed to lease long-distance planes from George Batchelor. In January 1991, the two business rivals signed a joint-venture agreement giving Batchelor's company, International Air Leases, Inc., a majority of the profits his planes earned in addition to the lease payments themselves. In return, Batchelor agreed to cover any operating losses involving his leased planes.

The arrangement would eventually give Batchelor access to Rich's lucrative contracts with the U.S. Air Mobility Command to fly military personnel from base to base. His own charter airline, Arrow Air, had not transported passengers since the military pulled its contract in 1987 following an Arrow crash in Newfoundland that killed nearly 250 servicemen and women. Jean Rich was also backed against the wall. Her own planes did not meet new federal noise-abatement standards. Batchelor's planes met the standards.

But there were also dangers attached to the deal Jean Rich made with George Batchelor. Without a vigilant manager to protect the airline's financial interests, for example, Batchelor could be in a position to suck all the profits out of Rich International Airways. Also the one-to-one relationship could create a type of business codependency, except that the wealthy Batchelor, with his multitude of aviation companies and myriad industry contacts, was clearly the stronger partner. It was the kind of deal, perhaps, that could be successfully managed only by an iron-willed person with a controlling personality and an obsession with detail -- a person such as Jean Rich.

The aviation pioneer signed another critical piece of paper that final year of her life: her last will and testament. Through that document, she created shares in her company and left 40 percent of them to her husband, Bill Meenan, who has replaced her as president. Her four children each received 15 percent of the shares, which gave them a combined 60 percent majority control of Rich International. The will thus created a system of checks and balances between stepfather and children, which Jean Rich hoped would provide stability for both the family and the company.

Instead Linda Harrington and her stepfather Bill Meenan have been in court for nearly four years, battling for control of the airline. Harrington has sued to have company shares properly distributed and to convene a legitimate board of directors. She also wants Meenan removed as executor of her mother's estate and president of the airline.

For his part, Meenan has filed three lawsuits against Harrington and one of her brothers. He has a powerful ally in Batchelor and his legions of attorneys. Together the men have forced Harrington to fight for the most fundamental of legal rights, such as the right to subpoena witnesses. They've flouted court-approved agreements and have tried to force her out of her Islamorada house.

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