Experts condemn 'foolish adventure'

Death of seven-year-old pilot: World anger as air chiefs promise review of flying by children
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The Independent Online

Los Angeles

A note placed at the crash site yesterday where Jessica Dubroff was killed read "God's newest little angel". But world reaction to the death of the seven-year-old girl trying to become the youngest pilot to fly across America was more angry than sympathetic.

While Jessica's mother asked people to "let children fly if they want to fly", the US Federal Aviation Administration promised to review rules covering underage and unlicensed pilots.

American flying experts called the flight an irresponsible, exploitative adventure. "Dead for a record" proclaimed the Swiss daily Le Matin. Australian radio news called it a "publicity stunt that ended in a disaster".

"I feel that there is no place in aviation for such foolishness as this type of flight," was one comment on CompuServe's on-line aviation forum.

Jessica's aircraft crashed shortly after take-off in a residential street in Cheyenne, Wyoming, early on Thursday. Her instructor Joe Reid and her father, Lloyd, who was in the back of the four-seater aircraft, died with her.

"Clearly I would want all my children to die in a state of joy," said her mother Lisa Hathaway. "I would prefer it was not at age seven, but, God, she went with her joy and her passion, and her life was in her hands."

The girl from a small northern California town, with curls, a wistful look in her eye and a blue baseball cap with the logo "Women Fly", was the picture of American girlhood.

Jessica was reported as a passionate reader of biographies of Amelia Earhart, the pioneer pilot who disappeared on a trans-pacific flight and is still one of America's favourite romantic heroines.

Like the Apollo 13 space mission, her flight had attracted only passing attention until it went wrong, but yesterday her face dominated newspapers and television shows. "I cared deeply for this little girl," said the mayor of Cheyenne, Leo Pando, breaking down in tears with memories of his own daughter who was drowned in a flood at 16. "She had a refreshing optimism that is plainly lacking in today's world."

Jessica, who needed a booster chair to see out of the windscreen and aluminium exten- sions to reach the pedals, would have struggled to exert the 60lbs of pressure that the FAA generally assumes a pilot can put on controls. She was not legally flying the four-seater Cessna but at present children of any age may take control under supervision if a pilot deems it safe.

Bystanders said Jessica was clearly at the controls when the aircraft took off in driving rain at an airport 6,000ft high, where thinner air meant its engines had substantially less power. The temperature at was also near freezing. She had only four months experience in the cockpit and was on the second leg of her planned 6,500 mile round trip.

The unofficial record for trans-continental flights was set by Daniel Shankin in 1991, just a month older than Jessica, and an eight-year-old made the flight last year. "It's the American way," said Drew Steketee, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which like other industry groups has been nervous about such events. "If `an 11-year-old does it, a 10's going to do it, then a nine, then an eight, then a seven."