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.

But Harrington has been able to draw on resources Meenan and Batchelor had not anticipated: a network of employees throughout the country who were once loyal to Jean Rich and are now dedicated to her daughter. Those workers have provided Harrington with reams of internal reports and memos that, she asserts, document slipshod management, self-dealing, cronyism, and profligate waste. More grave are allegations in her lawsuits and in correspondence with company attorneys of lapses in basic maintenance and safety procedures and altered maintenance and pilot-training records.

To those charges, Meenan won't respond for this story. But the airline's corporate counsel, Mark Scheer, summed up the company's response in a May 17 letter: "Rich International Airways is extremely proud of the fact that in over 25 years of continuous flight operations, it has never had a major accident and has never had a death or serious injury. Not only are [Harrington's] charges baseless, they are irresponsible."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lent credence to Harrington's claims of maintenance lapses this past June, when it cited the airline for installing unapproved, foreign parts in eight of ten airplanes in use in March 1995.

Harrington has been bolstered by another resource: her conviction that her mother, the legendary Jean Rich, would not only approve of her quest, but would have taken it on as her own. "The airline was built for her children," Harrington insists. "That was her safety net for her children. She certainly didn't intend for George Batchelor to throw us out in the street."

In a charming 1939 photograph, a handsome man wearing a jaunty captain's hat holds the yoke of a Ford Tri-motor as it climbs over the Andes mountains. His wide grin and relaxed posture convey his joy of flight. The man is Jean Rich's father, David Sanguesa, the family's first aviator. The Spanish Sanguesa married into an aristocratic Peruvian family and migrated to Miami after the birth of Jean, his first daughter. Later he would head the maintenance divisions of several South American and U.S. aviation firms. Daughter Jean followed him into the business while still in high school, first working as a secretary, then becoming a pilot, and finally entering the business side and brokering her first airplane deal before turning 21.

Sanguesa had been a strict father. He sent his three children to Catholic school, and made sure that Jean always had a chaperon for social events. Still, his attractive, wide-eyed daughter had no trouble attracting beaus. One of them, Homer Rich, worked under her father, who was chief inspector of L.B. Smith airlines in Miami. Rich, a pilot recently returned from Korea, boasted Nordic good looks and a talent for fixing airplanes. They married in 1956.

He idolized his Peruvian-born wife, and together they built a small cargo carrier, Florida Caribbean Airways, which later went bankrupt. But the war had scarred him. Family members recall that he drank to forget the faces of the dead. And when he drank, he lashed out. Jean Rich's sister, Jacqueline McGuire, remembers shattered family dinners. "He would go berserk," McGuire says. "He would start screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. She'd say, 'Rich, I wish you wouldn't drink any more.' He'd get in the car and race around and start beeping the horn and saying, 'Jean, get out here with those kids!' It was abusive -- four-letter words and screaming."

Their daughter Linda remembers a fight that occurred when she was just ten. She, her mother, and her father had picked up burgers and drinks from the Burger King in South Dade when an argument started. From the back seat, Linda looked up when she heard a slap. "He whacked her," she remembers. "I was petrified. I hit him in the back and said, 'Leave my mother alone!' I'll never forget. He had gotten hot coffee and he threw it in the back seat. I got some on my legs."

Jean Rich would endure the fighting for thirteen years. But in 1969 she decided she had had enough and filed for divorce. She then obtained a $10,000 loan and bought a small C-46 prop plane with only 4400 square feet of cargo space, and opened for business as Rich International Airways.

The head of maintenance at Rich was Bill Meenan, a lanky, easygoing Irish American with aviation experience and an appreciation of strong, beautiful women. Jean Rich married him in 1971. Being a wife, however, did not in any way diminish the respect she commanded as chief executive. "Here's Jean running and telling everybody what to do," recalls Laurence Costanzo, a former pilot who is suing the airline for his firing in 1992. "She's this little Napoleon who terrified the heck out of everyone. She had some chutzpah."

Jacqueline McGuire remembers her sister as having always been self-confident, sometimes even self-important, which may explain why her father had nicknamed her "Queen Bee." And McGuire was not surprised that she embraced the tough manner and rough language of the men she dealt with every day. George Batchelor recalls that Jean Rich feared no one -- not him, not other competitors, not even the FAA: "She had no hesitation to pick up the phone and call the president of the United States if she thought she had a problem and she was not getting answers from the bureaucrats."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets