Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Children As Children

I just noticed this article on CNN of the death, apparently by suicide, of a young woman who, as a child, had held the records for the youngest cross-country flight and trans-Atlantic flight. She was 11 when she flew across the US (with an instructor on board for safety).

Near the end of the article, there is a quick mention of the death of a 7 year old, Jessica Dubroff,  attempting to break the record with her father (not just a flight instructor) in 1996.  The short mention does not do justice to the grotesque circumstances of her death and the dangers of parents who forget that their children are children, not small adults, and should not be used as vessels for fulfilling parental dreams. Van Meter is quoted as having said, "accidents do happen," but this is a gross misrepresentation of what actually happened.  An accident is something you don't expect to happen.  Every decision surrounding Dubroff's flight was almost guaranteed to create a disaster.

I know about the circumstances of this accident because I receive a CD every two months called the "Pilot's Audio Update."  It a helpful hour or so of commentators talking about aviation issues, mostly flight safety and recurrent training.  On a recent edition, one of the commentators read through the NTSB report on the Dubroff accident.  

This was not an "accident."  The little girl and her father were flying very early in the spring (his decision) because her birthday was coming up and he (not she) didn't want to miss the record.  The Rockies present serious safety challenges for a normally-aspirated plane (ie, one that does not have a turbocharger to produce consistent power as the air gets thinner at high altitude) at any time of the year.  Flying them early in the spring is not the wisest safety choice due to the strong winds and mountain turbulence.  At high altitudes, normally-aspirated planes rapidly lose their ability to climb, meaning that the pilot has fewer options as the terrain rises.  We don't encounter this problem much in the East (except for maybe crossing the Alleghenies), but I have taken my own plane up into the 'teens in altitude and the loss of performance is substantial.  Now try and imagine that the airport you are taking off from is already at 5,000 feet and you will realize that mountain flying in this kind of plane is a serious proposition even under the best of circumstances.

But the father went ahead with the early spring plan because he wanted the record.  

When he and his daughter took off on the day of the accident, there was another, far more experienced pilot in a jet on the field who decided to delay his departure because of the severe weather and the mountainous terrain around the airport.  Visbility was low.  There were thunderstorms in the area and a wind shear advisory in effect.  The terrain around the high-elevation airport was mountainous.  Why did the father decide to depart instead of waiting?  It turns out that he had media interviews scheduled at the next stop and he didn't want to be late.

It goes on and on, with horrific decisions made by the father that all seemed to be driven by his need to get the record (through his child) and to ensure that he made the next appointment with the media.  Anybody with half a brain knows that a 7 year old girl is not equipped to make complex risk decisions concerning weather and flight safety.  And I think anybody with a daughter will know how heavily invested little girls can be in pleasing their daddies.  Even as I type this, I get angry and start to shake.  The commentator on the Pilot's Audio Update could barely get through his piece without choking up with sadness and rage.  It was just child abuse, plain and simple.

It's really just sick.

1 comment:

Tony Alva said...

I read that article earlier and wondered about the asshat dad's of all those pilot kids. I'm no pilot and not a fan of small plane flight, but it's stunning how some parents can find justification to act this way. It's no different than mom's who force their kids into pagnets and dad's obsessed with their boy being the best little league player in the world.