...And How Young Is Too Young?

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At the other end of the spectrum, private pilots can be certified at age 16, which occasionally raises questions about judgment and maturity. Such a case occurred last week, when police in Marshfield, Wis., filed charges against two 16-year-old boys who allegedly buzzed a packed stadium during an after-dark high-school football game. Witnesses said the small aircraft flew as low as 150 feet above the ground, and passed over the stadium three times, moving very slowly and rocking the wings. The student pilot at the controls reportedly had never flown at night before. "Given the minimal experience this pilot had, I am convinced this community dodged a catastrophic event," Marshfield Police Chief Joe Stroik told the Wausau Daily Herald.

Recent studies have shown that the brains of those 16 to 25 years old are still developing in the regions that control judgment and risky behavior. "We found that the frontal lobes were the last to develop," UCLA brain researcher Paul Thompson told the Rocky Mountain News. Those brain regions control inhibition, rash actions, rage and anger, as well as decision-making, risk perception and impulse control. "While a 14- or 17-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong, they don't have the same abilities to control their behaviors and assess risks the way adults do," said Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor. Other recent incidents involving young pilots include a 22-year-old accused of stealing a Citation jet in Florida, a 20-year-old student pilot who allegedly took a stolen 172 on a drunken joyride in June, and a 14-year-old boy who stole a 152 from an airport ramp late one night and flew it around.