Jessica Dubroff being interviewed upon
her arrival in Cheyenne, Wyo., 10 years ago.
(Photo courtesy Kevin Poch, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle)
Ten years ago Tuesday, an over-gross Cessna Cardinal crashed near a huge thunderstorm just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. The NTSB attributed the cause to the pilot in command's decision to take off into what was clearly deteriorating weather. While that sounds like any number of unfortunate GA weather accidents, the NTSB also listed a contributing cause - pressure to meet a schedule of media interviews.
Because of the media, the "pilot" wasn't the 52-year-old flight instructor in the right seat; it was the 7-year-old little girl on the left, sitting on a booster seat, reaching for rudder-pedal extensions - set on setting a record for the "youngest pilot" to fly across the United States. And the media fallout from her tragic death nearly changed general aviation.
"It was crazy," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Everyone was screaming about allowing children to fly airplanes, and Congress was hot to pass laws to prevent the tragedy from ever happening again. We had our work cut out for us to bring reason and sanity back to the situation."
Ultimately, AOPA's efforts led to changes that would prohibit such stunt flights, yet preserved the ability to introduce young people to aviation. It was the best possible result from a very bad confluence of circumstances.
Jessica Dubroff was a media darling with her fresh face, spunky attitude, ready to take on the adventure of piloting an aircraft from "sea to shining sea" as her promotional material said. Her father, Lloyd Dubroff, was good at promotion. Even the major media like the Today Show and Good Morning America got caught up in the hype.
"We tried to dissuade them," recalled Warren Morningstar, then AOPA's media relations director. "I explained to every media outlet I talked to that Jessica couldn't set a record because she couldn't be the pilot in command. She was, at best, a passenger allowed to manipulate the controls."
It didn't matter. Even the FAA got caught up in the hype. The FAA administrator asked Boyer what the agency should do to celebrate the flight. Boyer wisely said the agency shouldn't.
After the crash, Boyer and the AOPA media team did interview after interview, explaining the concept of pilot in command and the dual controls on a modern GA aircraft.
Boyer even took a video of dual controls onto Larry King Live. He later used that same video in front of congressional committees.
He needed it. Congress was ready to pass legislation preventing anyone under the age of 16 from even touching the controls of an aircraft. And that would have put at risk such programs as Aviation Explorer Scouts, EAA's Young Eagles, and every other attempt - both organized and individual - to safely share the wonder of flight with the next generation.
Fortunately, AOPA's lobbying efforts were successful. And thanks to the efforts of Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) and William Lipiniski (D-Ill.), the Child Pilot Safety Act was passed, which prohibits a pilot in command from allowing a nonpilot to work the controls of an aircraft if the nonpilot is attempting to set a record or engage in an aeronautical competition. And that put an end to the competition of younger and younger "pilots" trying to set "records."
See also " Safety Pilot: A question of age or judgment."
April 11, 2006