A question of age or judgment

June 1, 1996

Jessica Dubroff's father wanted to make headlines, and he got his way. His daughter was to be the youngest to fly across the country. The dream turned into a weather judgment accident similar to others we have every year — and a public relations disaster for general aviation. In our debate over how to prevent something that shouldn't have happened, there is a temptation to ask a single straightforward question to get a quick answer. It is easy, obvious, and wrong.

For the Rip Van Winkles out there who may have escaped the media deluge last month, seven-year-old Jessica, her father, and her flight instructor set out to cross the continent and prove that she had the right stuff by duping the media into thinking that she was actually flying the airplane. The fairy tale became a catastrophe when their overloaded Cessna Cardinal tangled with frontal conditions and, possibly, wind shear immediately after takeoff despite a warning from the tower. It plunged nose first into a Cheyenne, Wyoming, housing development. The investigation is not complete, so any comments here on the cause must be counted as speculative.

Media inquiries began literally within minutes of the accident. Some of the journalists seemed sympathetic but were seduced by the obvious easy solution. In other cases, editors and producers preferred not to let the facts get in the way of the "entertainment value." Their primary question was similar to Groucho Marx's classic query of whether you had stopped beating your wife — no way to answer without some incrimination. That question was whether children should be allowed to fly.

The media and the public continue to equate general aviation with automobiles. The analogy drawn was between Jessica and a youngster peering through a steering wheel, fender to fender with tractor-trailers and minivans loaded with families. Anyone who knows aircraft and the aviation environment understands that is not the case, but cars and airplanes are constantly compared. Aviation should drop the 1950s marketing ploy that "If you can drive a car, you can fly a plane." If that were so, our industry would be much stronger today and it wouldn't take between 56 and 60 hours, on average, to earn a private pilot certificate. This is not to say that learning to fly is for the highly gifted; but it does require practice, commitment, and — above all — good judgment.

Let's be absolutely clear on what the regulations do say about age and capability. Federal Aviation Regulations Part 61.83 states that a person must be at least 16 years old and hold a medical certificate issued under FAR Part 67. Then FAR 61.87 goes on for five paragraphs and 15 subparagraphs to enumerate specifically the requirements for one to operate an airplane solo in the traffic pattern. FARs 61.89, 61.93, and 61.95 go on for several pages to list more limitations and requirements for students who will operate as pilot in command.

Some pilots have stated that if the FAA had a regulation prohibiting anyone under the age of 16 from piloting an aircraft, this accident would not have happened. The above cited regs do precisely that. They do not, however, prohibit control manipulation and ill-conceived publicity stunts. This is an unfortunate first occurrence under these conditions, and a calm review of the facts is in order. The correct question, and far more difficult to answer, is how can we encourage adults, not children who manipulate the controls, to use better judgment? That is something the airlines, the U.S. Air Force, and the railroads have all been forced to look at this spring with some very high profile accidents in Colombia, Bosnia, and Washington, D.C. Did I hear anyone mention a persistent judgment problem with automobile accidents killing more than 35,000 people a year? Last year there were 679 fatalities in light fixed-wing aircraft — not satisfactory by any means, but it puts things into perspective.

Everyone who drives a car understands that there are some unavoidable risks, but most can be managed reasonably well. The same can be said of flying, but the public doesn't relate to that because personal flying is a unique activity. The result is that general aviation — rather than the pilots who exercise faulty judgment and get crosswise with physics and aerodynamics — gets a black eye.

While the details of this accident are still being thrashed out, the environment in which it occurred is crystal clear. There was a lot of stuff to carry in the aircraft; and, after all, there was an empty seat. A cooler doesn't weigh that much. A suitcase couldn't weigh more than 30 or 35 pounds, and each of the passengers had one. Perhaps there were a garment bag and an overnight bag or two. Pretty soon we're starting to talk significant weight, but this aircraft had never before had a problem carrying the load. After all, it made it to Wyoming.

What worked in the coastal areas of San Francisco is not workable in the much thinner air of Cheyenne. The Cardinal is not exactly a ball of fire when heavily loaded, but how will it fly overloaded at a much higher density altitude? When the engine produces only 50 to 60 percent of rated sea-level power, how will that affect an already anemic climb rate? There are many more questions that the pilot apparently didn't consider or rationalized away. What if the wind becomes stronger? What if it changes direction and speed just after takeoff? Is 13 knots, the margin between stall and climb speed for the Cardinal in question, sufficient under those conditions? What if the luggage is loaded in a different place than it was yesterday, moving the center of gravity outside the envelope? What if we wait for this weather front to pass? How does that affect the schedule? Will the media wait? Will we miss an opportunity?

The FAA is taking heat for allowing this accident to happen. The politicians, after some airline accidents two years ago, pressured FAA Administrator David Hinson into repeating a pronouncement that zero accidents would be the goal. It was a laudable objective, politically astute and designed to show the electorate that things were being done. It was also an impossibility, given current technology and human failures/frailties. By making such statements the FAA and the government create an unreasonable expectation on the part of the naive non-flying public that it is actually achievable. The public's disappointment becomes greater with each occasional tragedy, and the shrillness for quick political solutions increases. In the rush to do something — anything — quickly, there is pressure to overlook some real opportunities that may take longer to realize. Meaningful gains toward the achievable goal of reasonable safety are out there, but they generally take time and don't immediately solve political problems.

A few states are trying to legislate common sense by prohibiting children under the age of 16 from touching aircraft controls. The Air Safety Foundation was unable to find a single general aviation accident in the last 12 years where a child at the controls could be even remotely considered the primary cause.

Fortunately, some cooler heads are working on a national solution to a narrow issue. Proposed regulations prohibit nonpilots from attempting to set aeronautical records or participate in a competition or feat. The scope of the problem is being considered in order to determine how safety can be reasonably improved by regulation.

What is the message to the aviation community? The same as always. Operate the aircraft and yourself conservatively within the limits. We deal with weather, wind, weight, and myriad issues on a regular basis. We can control more risks than drivers; but when a judgment error occurs, it is likely to be spectacular and feed the media's appetite for the sensational.

Wishful thinking has never levitated an aircraft over a mountain or through a wind shear encounter. Only planning, skill, and avoidance of impossible situations will reduce the jeopardy. The risk versus the reward, the schedule versus safety — it's a topic that will come up as long as we fly.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.