I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday but I know exactly where I was on July 17, 1999. I was standing on the ramp at Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut pre-flighting an F33 one of my students had loaned me. I was flying down to Cross Keys, New Jersey, to go skydiving. A lineman approached me and asked if I had seen a Piper Saratoga and he gave me the N-number. I hadn’t seen it and gave it no further thought.
Later that evening, when I learned that the missing aircraft had been flown by John F. Kennedy Jr. and had crashed into the Atlantic enroute to Martha’s Vineyard while flying VFR on a hazy summer night, I had a vague sense of guilt. I couldn’t shake the feeling that for all the sunshine and shameless glad handing in support of airplanes and aviation we do, we do a crappy job of conveying to people how easily they can get killed doing it. And how much avoiding getting killed—really, all of it—is on them.
I had the same feeling when a reader texted me this link describing a young woman, Zara Rutherford, who has just set off to become the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo. According to the site, she left Belgium on Wednesday and arrived in Greenland on Friday. The aircraft is a Rotax-powered Shark European ultralight to the 600 KG weight limit; what we would know as an LSA. It’s a retractable, so it’s fast (127 knots in economy cruise) with up to 49 gallons of fuel according to the POH. So far so good. But it’s also day VFR limited and Ms. Rutherford appears not to be instrument rated. Whatever pilot rating she has she earned last year.
Ostensibly, the reason for the flight is to promote STEM education and to, yet again, demonstrate to young women and girls that they can do this sort of thing. It’s now to the point, it seems, that whatever risky, edgy thing you want to do is somehow made credible by the high-minded insertion of STEM learning. Want to set yourself on fire and swing on a cable under the George Washington Bridge? Well, call it a Foucault Pendulum demonstration to promote STEM and maybe the crazy label won’t stick.
If this flight completes successfully—and let’s fervently hope that it does—I hardly think the risk squeeze will be worth the payoff juice. I don’t think it’s fair to call it wild-eyed unglued, but as the reader who texted me said, it’s also pretty sketchy. It is attempting to distaff duplicate the circumnavigation record set by 18-year-old—and instrument-rated—Travis Ludlow in a Cessna 172 beginning in May.
These flights are catnip for the popular press. These editors don’t know risk assessment from a pile of horse dung so the people who dream these things up—nominally adults—think they have to break through the noise level by lowering the common denominator with ever younger pilots or less capable machinery just to see how low the crazy can go. I doubt if they promote aviation in any measurable way if they succeed, but they profoundly tarnish it if they don’t.
And, as you knew it would, that gets me to the all-time low water mark for these sorts of circus acts: Jessica Dubroff. She would be a vivacious 33-year-old today, but the adults around her—spurred on by the press’ insatiable appetite for spectacle—put her in a pile of twisted wreckage in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At seven, she was too young to be a real PIC and too short even to reach the pedals without a booster seat.
She was in quest of a record she couldn’t even have legitimately earned—the youngest person to pilot an airplane across the continent. In a towering example of bad judgment, her flight instructor departed Cheyenne VFR into thunderstorm conditions and high winds. No survivors. The whole awful thing was so appalling that Congress actually passed the Child Pilot Safety Act to discourage a repeat.
For a time, Guinness stopped recognizing such record attempts to tamp down people attempting ever riskier stunts. But apparently they’re at it again, since Ludlow’s record is listed by Guinness. I see the two flights as subtly different since Ludlow was better trained and in a more capable aircraft. But there is no bright line between inspiring and over-the-top lunacy.
By the time you find it and cross it, you may no longer be among the living.