Sunday, September 12, 2010

Last Words: Jessica Dubroff


“Do you hear the rain? Do you hear the rain?”

- Jessica Dubroff (1988-1996),
seven-year-old pilot minutes before her plane crashed.

Jessica began taking flying lessons from flight instructor, Joe Reid, on her sixth birthday. She was an enthusiastic pupil and her father, Lloyd Dubroff, who was separated from Jessica's mother, suggested a coast to coast flight. Jessica embraced the idea, Joe Reid agreed to provide flight instruction and make his aircraft available and her father had caps and t-shirts made to promote the event, which was named “Sea to Shining Sea”.

Although Jessica had logged 33 hours of flight training, she was not the holder of a pilot or student certificate, the minimum age in the US being 17 years for a pilot certificate and 16 years for a student pilot certificate. This meant that her flying instructor had to be at the controls during all flight operations. The plane to be used in the coats to coast flight was a 4 seat single engine propeller Cessna with dual controls. Reid would sit with Jessica in the front and her father in the back. Reid was to be paid for his services at normal rates and told his wife that he would be "flying cross country with a 7 year old sitting next to you and the parents paying for it.” He referred to the flight as a “non-event for aviation”.

There was no body recognising juvenile flight record attempts nor was there any official record keeping for such attempts. The Guinness Book of Records had ceased keeping youngest pilot records seven years earlier because of the risk of accidents. Nonetheless the flight was publicised as a record attempt, encouraged and promoted by Jessica’s father. ABC New gave her father a video camera and blank tapes to record the event.  It received heavy media attention, notwithstanding that Reid attended to at least part of the flying and assisted in landing because of winds on one occasion.

On April 11 1996 the plane crashed, only 24 hours into Jessica's quest to be the youngest person to fly a plane across America. Jessica, her father and Reid died in the crash, which occurred just after taking off during a storm.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the probable cause of the accident was Reid’s "improper decision to take off into deteriorating weather conditions (including turbulence, gusty winds, and an advancing thunderstorm and associated precipitation) when the airplane was overweight and when the density altitude was higher than he was accustomed to, resulting in a stall caused by failure to maintain airspeed."

The NTSB also commented that "contributing to the pilot in command’s decision to take off was a desire to adhere to an overly ambitious itinerary, in part, because of media commitments.”

Congress subsequently passed legislation which prohibited young persons without a pilot’s certificate or student pilot’s certificate manipulating aircraft controls to set a record or engage in an aeronautical competition or aeronautical feat.

At a time when Jessica Watson and Holland’s Laura Dekker have been receiving attention for attempts to be the youngest to sail solo  around the world, it is appropriate to note the words of the ABC’s Ted Koppel, who said on Nightline in relation to the death of Jessica Dubroff: "We need to begin by acknowledging our own contribution...We feed one another: those of you looking for publicity and those of us looking for stories." Koppel ended by asking "whether we in the media...by our ravenous attention contribute to this phenomenon," and answered: "We did.”

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