The April 1996 crash in Wyoming that killed 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff along with her father and CFI Joe Reid generated a firestorm in the mass media that threatened to generate a knee-jerk legislative response from Congress. But working quickly both in public and behind-the-scenes, the general aviation alphabet organizations AOPA and EAA did exactly what we members pay them to do. The result: the public furor has died down quickly, and the bill introduced in the house is one we can live with.
April 23, 1996
The transcontinental lightplane flight of
7-year-old Jessica Dubroff was strictly a made-for-TV event from
the outset. Although billed as an attempt to "set the record"
for the youngest pilot ever to make such a flight, there was no
record at stake here. Neither the National Aeronautics Association
nor even the Guiness Book of World Records recognizes such
"youngest pilot" feats.
When I first heard about the upcoming flight, I reacted as I imagine
most airmen did...I groaned and muttered, "Oh shoot, not
again!" or words to that effect. It seems like every couple
of years, some prepubescent youngster sets off with his or her
CFI on a quest for their 15 minutes of fame and glory. Television
reporters always seem to go beserk over these stunts, while most
pilots simply sigh at the silliness of it all. When Jessica's
flight was announced, I observed that the reaction on CompuServe's
AVSIG aviation forum was particularly harsh. One wag posted a
mock announcement that his unborn child would be making a cross-country
record attempt, and that a flight by his yet-to-be-conceived child
was under consideration.
But when the heavily-loaded plane stalled and spun in during an
unsuccessful low-altitude turn-back attempt just after takeoff
from Cheyenne, Wyoming, in stormy weather, it quickly became no
longer a laughing matter.
The television networks went into a feeding frenzy over the story,
which dominated every TV newscast, morning show, talk show and
newsmagazine for the next four days. The newspapers, wire services
and talk-radio programs went crazy, too. Jessica's face even made the
cover of TIME magazine, complete with cap, David Clarks, and the rhetorical
headline "Who Killed Jessica?"
The same reporters who
had been following Jessica's trek with such obvious enthusiasm
now were demanding to know how it could possibly be legal for
a 7-year-old to pilot an airplane. Network TV anchors shoved microphones
in the face of the FAA's less-than-telegenic Administrator, who
mumbled some comments about CFI responsibility and dual controls
and promised he'd look into it.
Even scarier was the predictable reaction on Capitol Hill. Numerous
congressmen and senators capitalized on the photo-ops generated
by the Cheyenne crash coverage by calling for a legislative quick-fix.
House aviation subcommittee chairman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) told
the press that he would introduce a bill "that would not
allow children to actually fly airplanes."
FAA Administrator Hinson protested that the current rules "have
served us very well" and made it clear he was not in favor
of such legislation. But when Hinson said he was holding off on
an FAA review of the rules until the NTSB completed its investigation
of the Cheyenne accident, his bosses at the Department of Transportation
"went ballistic" (in the words of Aviation Daily),
called Hinson on the carpet, and instructed him to put the review
back on fast-track status.
Clearly, the media and the politicians were not going to be satisfied
until a law is passed to ban children from flying.
Keep in mind that all of this sturm und drang was triggered
by a tragic but entirely routine light plane accident that wouldn't
have even made the back page had it not been for all the advance
publicity about the flight. General aviation was getting the kind
of exposure it usually gets on television: bad.
GA fights back
In the wake of this negative fallout, the two big general aviation
pilot organizationsthe Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
and the Experimental Aircraft Associationrose to the occasion
and had one of their finest hours in this observer's recent memory.
AOPA president Phil Boyer, who was a top executive at the ABC
television network before changing careers five years ago, appeared
on Larry King Live and Good Morning America to counterbalance
the bad press. Very comfortable on-camera (unlike Hinson), Boyer
calmly explained that CFI Joe Reid was pilot of the accident flight
in every meaningful sense, and that Jessica was simply a passenger
who was permitted to manipulate one set of the airplane's dual
controls. On the Larry King show, Boyer even brought along
a hastily-made home video that clearly demonstrated how dual controls
work and made it clear that Reid was always in a position to take
full command of the airplane. (Subsequent autopsy reports corroborated
what every pilot already knew: that Reid, not Jessica, was controlling
the aircraft when it crashed.)
Meanwhile, the legislative specialists at AOPA Legislative Action
and EAA went into a full-court press. There was tremendous concern
that the crash would result in a knee-jerk ban against young people
flying, thereby jeopardizing the many fine programs aimed at introducing
young people to aviation: the Aviation Explorer Scouts, the Civil
Air Patrol, the EAA Young Eagles program, and AOPA's Project Pilot.
It was becoming obvious that the no-change-is-needed position
initially adopted by most aviation groups was simply not going
to fly with the public, the press, or the legislators. So the
lobbyists at AOPA and EAA went to work to quickly craft a bill
that would not throw out the baby with the bath water, and to
sell the concept to key congressional leaders.
As a result, on April 18th, precisely one week after the Cheyenne
crash, House aviation subcommittee chairman Duncan (who had earlier
promised to ban children from flying) and ranking minority member
William Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced narrowly-drawn legislation
that would prohibit individuals who do not hold a valid pilot
certificate from manipulating the controls of an aircraft during
any record attempt, aeronautical competition, or aeronautical
feat as defined by the Administrator. Also signing on as sponsors
of the bill were congressmen Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), Gerry Weller
(R-Ill.), William Clinger (R-Pa.), Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa), Bill
Paxon (R-N.Y.), William Martini (R-N.J.) and James Traficant (D-Ohio).
The so-called Duncan-Lipinski bill seems certain to receive broad
support in both houses of Congress.
A week after the Cheyenne crash, the media frenzy seems largely
to have dissipatedreplaced by a preoccupation with the first
anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombingand the threat of onerous
rule changes that would have banned passengers (or at least youthful
ones) from touching the controls of an airplane appears to have
subsided. And a lot of the credit belongs to AOPA and EAA, who
surely earned their dues money this week.