April 10, 2006

"we're looking for a happy story on kids"

Crappy Anniversary, li'l Jessica.

Ten years ago, on the morning of April 11th, 1996, 7-year-old "pilot trainee" Jessica Dubroff died in a crash only moments after take-off in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her father and her flight instructor (the actual pilot, btw) also died.

A rivetting account of the sad details can be found here. (It is a rivetting read because of -- rather than in spite of -- it's stoic presentation of the facts.)
Lots more to read here.


Jessica Dubroff was allegedly setting a non-existent record for being the youngest pilot to fly cross-country and back again. According to the pilot's wife, the actual pilot, 52-year-old Joe Reid "considered the flight a 'non-event for aviation' and simply flying cross-country with a 7-year-old sitting next to you and the parents paying for it."

But little Jessica's "flight" had attracted media attention. Her father was given a camera and several cassettes by ABC News so that he might record her "accomplishment".

The autopsy report on the trainee's father noted that his left shirt pocket contained "numerous slips of paper with appointment times and dates of TV interviews," including one scheduled for that evening in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and another for the next evening in Massachusetts. There also were numerous business cards from radio stations, TV stations and networks.

Only a short time before the flight from Half Moon Bay, California to Massachussetts to Florida and back to Half Moon Bay, the Dubroffs were squatting and penniless. Not-so-cynical analysis leads many to believe that this was a media stunt cooked up by the father in order to create a sellable story. The Guiness Book of World Records had eliminated the category of "youngest pilot to..." years earlier. Jessica was setting no official record at the time.

The plane took off from Cheyenne in a thunderstorm. In moderate rainfall and winds gusting to 15 knots, the pilot apparantly misjudged his airspeed by watching his groundspeed. With a tail-wind pushing the plane forward he apparantly failed to accelerate smartly and the engine stalled. Witnesses say the plane fell at a nearly vertical angle.

Prior to take-off, the pilot made some errors that investigators found to be "consistant with fatigue".

The errors included:
* started the engine while the nosewheel was still chocked;
* requested a taxi clearance without first obtaining the ATIS;
* read back a radio frequency incorrectly;
* accepted a radio frequency he could not dial up on his radios;
* failed to acknowledge, as requested, weather information from the controller;
* asked "are we going the right way?";
* failed to stop at the end of the runway;
* requested a "special IFR" clearance.

Congress subsequently passed laws forbidding children from flying planes for any reason other than instruction, but that doesn't address what happened in this case. The reason that Jessica, her father and her trainer are dead is because dear ol' Dad had scheduled commitments to the media that he wanted to keep. Three people died to fullfill the dreams of a bankrupt father and a ratings-driven media.

Jessica Dubroff today would be 16, going on 17. She's six months younger than my own daughter would have been. While I might see myself risking my own life to make my daughter's life infinately richer than I alone could've made it, I highly doubt that I could risk my daughter's own life in the process.

I appologize for blogging such a sad story.

Posted by Tuning Spork at April 10, 2006 11:32 PM | TrackBack
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