The Jessica Bill: Nice Work, AOPA and EAA!

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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.

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.

Crash fallout

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 organizations—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association—rose 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 dissipated—replaced by a preoccupation with the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing—and 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.