He thrilled at the most challenging flying but died in routine test flight

August 12, 2011

Shannon Beebe loved the thrill of piloting small planes, the kinds that could take off and land on water, fly through African conflict zones and impress women.

The thick-bodied Army lieutenant colonel — who played competitive polo and co-
authored an anti-weapons book that riled military colleagues — logged 1,000 hours of backcountry flying in Africa and Alaska. He boasted about flying across the Arctic Circle and the Equator. He enjoyed jumping out of airplanes, too.

But the flight that ended Beebe’s life was in tranquil Fauquier County last Sunday, a clear afternoon. Beebe, 42, was piloting a single-engine plane toward Warrenton Air Park, carrying his girlfriend, Alexandria attorney Elizabeth Pignatello, when the aircraft banked steeply, crashed in a field and burst into flames, according to Virginia State Police, relatives and a witness.

Police have not officially identified the aircraft’s passenger, but Pignatello’s mother, Enid Robinson of Prince William County, confirmed that her daughter, who was 39, was in the plane. The crash remains under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.

No matter where he went, Beebe devoted his life to public service. He was cautious about risk but never let fear of death — or fear of rankling the bosses — stop him from living the way he wanted.

A Texas native who grew up in Arkansas, Beebe climbed the military’s hierarchy and ultimately wound up the darling of the humanitarian crowd.

He graduated in 1991 from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point. During the late 1990s, Beebe served in combat and stability operations in the Balkans and was a commander during the Operation Fox bombing campaign in Iraq. From 2009 to 2010, he served as an assistant Army attache at the U.S. Embassy in Angola.

“Some people were suspicious about us, because the U.S. supported the other side in the Angolan civil war several years ago, but he was a bridge builder and reached out to Angolans, moving our relations forward with success,” said Dan Mozena, the former ambassador to Angola, who worked with Beebe. “Shannon was very much a people kind of person, and he had a very dynamic personality.”

By the mid-2000s, Beebe had forged a friendship with Mary Kaldor, a British academic tapped by the European Union to generate ideas to bolster security on the continent. Beebe and Kaldor decided to collaborate on a book. The thesis: Traditional armies are no longer sufficient to stabilize conflict zones, and U.S. military forces should collaborate more with non-governmental organizations to protect civilians and communities rather than focusing on destroying enemies.

When the book, “The Ultimate Weapon Is No Weapon,” was published in 2010 by Public Affairs, Beebe got flak from some parts of the military, Kaldor said.

“In Angola, he wanted to go out and find what the people were really wanting and develop a strategy around that, but that’s not what the Pentagon wanted,” Kaldor said. “He was very frustrated.”

Beebe’s former wife, Tessa Powers, 33, a regional sales director in St. Paul, Minn., for a hair salon distribution company, said that the book triggered tension between Beebe and the military. “He wanted his ideas to come to fruition faster than they were allowing, but the NGO community really embraced the book,” she said.

After they married, Beebe learned how to fly at the Leesburg airport. Soon after he got certified, the couple spent six days in one month traveling to 66 airports across Virginia, earning the title Virginia Aviation Ambassadors.

“I trusted his skills, reaction time and his knowledge. He was quite something,” Powers said.

Once, they traveled to Tanzania, where they attended a large dinner featuring a slew of dignitaries, including several African presidents, she said.

“At one point, Shannon picked up a case of water and brought it out to the help, and they were really grateful. We sat and talked to them for a half-hour,” Powers said. “You had all these diplomats and presidents in this tent, but he would rather talk to the help because he wanted a real-life view of how life was there.”

By early 2010, the couple separated — Powers would only say they stopped getting along. Beebe found new love. He went on eHarmony, the dating Web site, and met Pignatello, a striking blonde attorney who specialized in trademark law and who had two small children from a previous marriage, according to Pignatello’s mother, Robinson.

She said her daughter and Beebe clicked because they could relate to each other’s past marriages. And they knew how to have fun. They flew up and down the East Coast on the weekends in small planes.

Robinson worried about the flights, but Beebe provided her with a way to check that he and her daughter landed safely.

“I am a mother, for heaven’s sakes, and I told her, ‘This makes me very nervous.’ But she said to me that she had every confidence in him,” Robinson said.

On Sunday, he and Pignatello were trying out a plane that they were going to use on an upcoming vacation in Michigan.

But as Beebe lined up his approach to the Warrenton Air Park runway, the Maule M7 slowed and made a very steep bank, according to the airfield’s operator and owner, Thomas Richards.

“I could not believe it when I saw the plane bank like that — not a good thing to do at that low of an altitude and low speed,” said Richards, who was the aircraft’s owner. “The airplane stalled. The nose dropped. He did not have enough altitude to recover, but he tried pulling out.

“I am going to grieve over this for a long time, probably forever,” Richards said.

For Robinson, part of the pain is not being able to see her daughter’s life plans unfold with Beebe.

“They were getting settled,” she said. “And they were going to get married.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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