PILOT, TRAGIC MEDIA DARLING
May 5, 1988 - April 11, 1996
I figure Jessica will do more for civil aviation [than anyone] since Amelia Earhart.
- Lloyd Dubroff
Jessica Dubroff was born in Massachusetts in 1988 to management consultant Lloyd Dubroff and spiritual healer Lisa Hathaway. The two separated four years later in California, never having married, and Jessica lived with and was homeschooled by her mother. Her parents apparently maintained amiable relations, however, with Lloyd staying involved in his children's lives. Lisa encouraged her children to take charge of their lives and to passionately dedicate themselves to their own goals and interests, and Jessica developed just such an interest when she was six and her parents arranged to go up together in a small plane. Starting flying lessons in November of 1996, she developed a goal, as well: to be the youngest pilot to fly across the country.
The Guinness Book of World Records had ceased recognizing such "youngest pilot" records in fear of encouraging potentially unsafe flights after 9-year-old Rachel Carter claimed the title in 1994, but despite that lack of "official" recognition, 8-year-old Killian Moss had broken her record in 1995. FAA regulations require pilots to be 16 years old to solo and 17 to acquire a license (though it is possible to petition for and receive waivers granting exemptions), but any licensed pilot may allow any passenger, licensed or not, to take the controls. The original pilot is officially noted as the "pilot in command", regardless of their actual level of control over the flight, and is considered responsible for the aircraft. Jessica planned to make her flight under the nominal pilotship of Jessica's flight instructor Joe Reid, who was paid for his time, stated that he intended to leave Jessica in control except in case of emergencies (most airplanes are fully controllable from both the pilot and copilot's seats), and was reportedly somewhat amused by the whole thing. At Jessica's request, her father also accompanied her in the back seat of the plane, Reid's Cessna Cardinal 177B, tail number N35207. The 177 is a fairly comfortable four-seat, high-wing airplane. While I've never flown one before, I've flown similar models that are said to be functionally identical, and found them to be sturdy and reliable, with more than adequate power and handling.
The plan in its final form was for an eight day round trip, starting from Half Moon Bay, California on April the 10th, heading to the east coast, and then making their way back to where they started by the 17th. As news of her intentions became known, Jessica became the subject of considerable media attention, the Today Show interviewing her crew prior to departure and planning to broadcast their east coast landing live, while local and regional outlets made arrangements to meet with and cover the group at every landing. Jessica departed Half Moon Bay around 7 AM on April 10th. By just after 5 PM, she made her third and final landing of the day at Cheyenne Municipal Airport in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a total distance covered of just under a thousand miles as the crow flies.
At around 8:25 AM on the 11th, Dubroff took off from Cheyenne Municipal Airport in conditions of heavy rain with strong winds and occasional sleet and snow, the type of weather you occasionally see described as "wintry mix". Witnesses on the ground reported that the plane made an extremely shallow climb for a short period, began a turn to the right, and then apparently entered a stall and crashed to the ground in a residential neighborhood, about 4,000 feet from the end of the runway. This was not even a crash landing, but rather an outright crash, with the nose of the plane striking a driveway at approximately a 60 degree angle. Though there were no casualties and negligible property damage on the ground, the plane was destroyed, and all onboard were killed. It is believed that Dubroff was not in control of the aircraft at the time of the crash - while Reid had claimed that he would keep his hands off the controls except in the case of emergency, this would certainly seem to qualify as such, and the discovery of the most severe fractures in his arm bones suggest that he was handling the yoke at the time of impact.
The NTSB report laid out several factors which together caused the crash. First, and most obvious, were the weather conditions, in which it is generally agreed that flying was unadvisable and the takeoff should have been postponed. Instead, the group decided to take off before the weather worsened and departure became entirely infeasible. The decision not to postpone is attributed in large part to media commitments which dictated a strict adherence to the original itinerary. The presence of a thunderstorm in the area, which would have been encountered if the plane continued to fly a straight path after takeoff, was credited for the rightward turn. The force of lift acting on a plane is always perpendicular to the flight path and to the wings, and when banking less lift is acting upwards, and the plane does not rise as fast or may descend. This did not in and of itself cause the crash, but an attempt to pull the aircraft's nose higher to compensate may have contributed to the stall.
Further, between three people, supplies and luggage for same, and the many souvenirs accepted and promotional items given as gifts along the heavily publicized tour, the plane was a little less than a hundred pounds over its rated takeoff weight at the time it left the airport. Cheyenne Airport is also located at a relatively high altitude, over 6,000 feet above sea level, a condition which neither Jessica or Reid had much familiarity with. In layman's terms, this means the air was thin and the engine power output is noticeably decreased unless the fuel/air mixture is adjusted, a relatively simple procedure, but one that it appears was not performed. Both of these factors would decrease power, slow climb, and increase the "stall speed", which indicates an airspeed below which the plane is likely to enter a stall. Finally, though it is obviously difficult to assess in retrospect, there are suspicions that the flyers may not have had enough sleep and were fatigued, which would negatively affect awareness, reaction time, and decision-making.
In summary, the plane was taken up in adverse conditions, and with tolerances cut by several factors the pilots may not have been aware of, was pushed beyond its limits. No signs of mechanical failure were found, and the accident was attributed entirely to human error. None of this should be taken to say that Reid was particularly incompetent or foolhardy, however - the NTSB performs very exhaustive analyses of all such aircraft accidents, tracing and noting every possible contributing factor. These are then published for other pilots to learn from, and I read the summaries of many such reports when I was taking flying lessons. Believe you me, many people get in trouble arising from far stupider errors and poor decisions. Many more do the same things or worse and come out of it fine - while Reid is not to be held blameless, the crash was a product of a number of factors ganging up and his luck falling through at the wrong time.
Lisa Hathaway, contacted for comment in the weeks after the crash, renounced any notions of regret over her daughter's attempt, reaffirming her support for Jessica's interest and ambition, and placing the death in the context of Jessica's following her dream. Somewhat eerily, she quoted Jessica as having earlier proclaimed that "I want to fly until I die". Jessica's 9-year-old brother Joshua reportedly intended to perform a memorial overflight of Jessica's funeral, well-attended by the media, but was prevented by bad weather.
In the wake of Jessica's death, there were scattered calls for something to be done, though it was often unclear what the specific problem was or what should be done to address it. Resisting (rightly, in my opinion) calls to enact a minimum age to operate an aircraft, the FAA waited out the media cycle doing nothing more than issuing a few advisories, essentially reminders to pilots to pay attention to what they were doing. A vaguely showboating inquiry was convened and an attempt to legislate an age restriction surfaced in Congress, but died in committee. With a minimum of public attention, insurance claims were negotiated, and the matter dropped off the radar entirely. As of this node's date of writing, there have been no further publicly acknowledged attempts at youthful transcontinental flight, and Killian Moss retains the record for the foreseeable future.