This story was originally published in The Arizona Republic on Aug. 28, 2007. Years later, John McAfee would leave the United States and later face criminal charges. In 2021, while McAfee was facing extradition for tax-related charges, authorities in Spain announced he had been found dead.
In the glow of a monsoon sunrise, John McAfee guides his kite-wing aircraft between granite spires in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona.
A waterfall spills from cliffs below as he yells to his backseat passenger, “Hang on now, and don’t panic!”
Suddenly, the winged tricycle dives into Cave Creek Canyon. It skips over the tips of ponderosa pines and dodges rock formations at 85 mph. Wind whistles through the pilot’s hair as he guides the plane over ocotillos and cattle on the floor of Rodeo Valley.
McAfee, the man behind McAfee anti-virus software, is helping to bring a new type of aviation to the Southwest.
Aerotrekking is a sport that involves following the terrain, often skimming just a few feet above the ground, visiting wild and beautiful places that could never be reached on foot or by car.
“It’s what Icarus dreamed of,” McAfee says after landing. “This is really human flight. You are attached to the wing, and you feel every sensation, every movement, every breath of air that goes by.”
McAfee, a Tucson resident, has spent nearly $12 million so far developing a network of seven aerotrekking bases in isolated parts of Arizona and New Mexico. He was trained by two of the sport’s pioneers in Arizona: Neil Bungard, a flight examiner with the Federal Aviation Administration, and ultralight distributor John Kemmeries. They joined McAfee in founding an exclusive club, Sky Gypsies, now with 150 enthusiasts.
The low-altitude high of aerotrekking is possible thanks to machinery that resembles a motorcycle with ultralight wings. It is powered by a rear propeller and guided by a steering bar at the pilot’s fingertips. The planes have a range of 300 miles or about five hours in the air. Expensive models can hit 115 mph or, just as important for this sport, a minimum speed of 25 mph.
There is no crash data for ultralights because most pilots are amateurs who build their aircraft from inexpensive kits and do not need flight certification. The FAA doesn’t track accidents, and the National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t investigate them.
The faster and more-costly aerotrekking planes are a distinct subspecies of “light sport aircraft.” Steered by weight-shift controls, they require special licensing from the FAA. About 275 pilots nationwide have been certified.
Bungard acknowledges the hazards, especially with low-level obstacles such as power wires and cliffs: “How dangerous is downhill speed skiing?” he asks. “You have elevated risk, but it’s managed risk.”
McAfee’s nephew and a passenger were killed in November when their kite-winged plane crashed in Cochise County. Kemmeries is hobbled by spinal injuries from a parasailing accident years ago. Both men still insist kite-wing flight is no more dangerous than other adventure sports, so long as the pilot is conscientious.
Kemmeries says that, when he flies, he loves dropping in on ranchers or hikers in the outback. “People want to talk with you: ‘Come on in, have dinner.’ It just breaks the ice. Immediately, you’re identified as a friendly.”
John McAfee, the antivirus software entrepreneur who faced extradition to the U.S. on tax-related criminal charges, was reportedly found dead. USA TODAY
It is impossible to tell about Sky Gypsies and aerotrekking without looking at McAfee, a blue-eyed multimillionaire who made his fortune as a software genius and later became a yoga master and author.
The first impression is hardly one of a geek or guru. McAfee looks a decade younger than his 62 years, tan with frosted hair, rings in his ears and tattoos from back to biceps. The native of England earned his math degree at Virginia’s Roanoke College in 1967, then entered the corporate world as a programmer when computers were still in their infancy. Working out of his home, he helped pioneer the field of computer security, creating the first virus scanner and forming in 1986 McAfee Associates, a world leader in software protection.
McAfee sold his stock in 1993 and founded Tribal Voice, another computer company. This time, he developed early instant messaging and promptly quit the business in 1996 for a new calling: transcendental meditation. In less than a decade, McAfee ascended to yoga teacher, leading workshops on peace, light, truth and oneness. He wrote four books with titles such as Beyond the Siddhis: Supernatural Powers and the Sultras of Pantanjali.
Developing new interest
While on a jetliner to Nepal, McAfee noticed a magazine article about light sport aircraft in Arizona. Intrigued, he tore out the pages and, upon returning to the states, called Kemmeries and started taking lessons.
McAfee recalls the first time he flew just a few feet above ground, following desert landscape: “I thought, ‘This is awesome.’ I just instantly knew that this was what this plane is meant for. You’re smelling plants, you’re feeling the air, you’re 15 feet above a cow.”
McAfee abandoned yoga — “It became a job,” he says — to explore the possibilities of low-level aviation. He and Kemmeries discovered hidden caves and ancient ruins in the wilderness. They soared with eagles, floated above coyotes and landed in dry lakes. They learned to sluice down canyons like airborne skiers.
Still, obstacles persisted. Urban areas have air-space restrictions, altitude limits and lackluster scenery. Flying to remote places required planning with a ground team.
McAfee decided to develop a 1,100-mile circuit with eight backcountry bases from Truth or Consequences, N.M., to Rimrock near Flagstaff. He scouted for six months by air and off-road vehicles. He bought land, then built runways, hangars and housing for Sky Gypsies.
Headquarters is at the end of a dirt road, just east of the Arizona line, more than 50 miles from the nearest supermarket. Few neighbors are around to complain about the sound of small engines. The weather is ideal for year-round exploration of what McAfee calls “the most marvelous flying country in the world.”
Funding a pastime
McAfee likes to claim that the sport is affordable compared with other pastimes, such as off-roading. Although the planes get 30 miles per gallon, this sport is not accessible to the financially challenged.
First, a sport pilot’s license requires at least 20 hours of flight instruction at $200 per session. Then, there is the cost of an aircraft: $30,000 to $120,000, depending on model and quality.
Those who can afford it may join Sky Gypsies if they pass muster. Fees range from $1,000 to $200,000 depending on the membership package, and the club is invitation-only with a strict no-alcohol policy.
“We don’t take partiers,” McAfee says. “We don’t take people who are cowboys. It’s exciting enough without showing off.”
Aerotrek routes are rated like whitewater-rafting for danger and difficulty. McAfee says low-altitude flight requires maximum attention, and planes are unsafe for windy weather or night flying.
Those with the finances and fortitude will find that the Sky Gypsies’ compound reflects McAfee’s unusual sense of style. Club members stay in 15 vintage Airstream trailers from the 1940s and ’50s, each refurbished to mint condition.
One of the Silver Bullets belonged to famed aviator and eccentric Howard Hughes. Each comes with an antique automobile of the same year. Also a movie theater, karaoke stage and greenhouse are available.
McAfee beams while showing off the accommodations. He seems most alive at dawn, revving up his kite-wing flier when the air is calm and the sky is pink.
“Nothing has brought me closer to nature than this,” he says. “These devices transform you into a bird.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2021/06/23/john-mcafee-flew-ultralights-arizona-sky-decade-before-death/5329303001/