Jessica Dubroff's wings may have been frosted with ice, and she had no joy of flight on her last ride. She took off in a cold rain and died when her single-engine Cessna 177B nose-dived onto the black tar of a suburban roadway. But her senseless death last week could also be attributed to a modern kind of hubris. For Jessica was urged on by overzealous parents, by a media drawn to a natural human-interest story and by a willfully blind Federal Aviation Administration, which permitted a 4-ft. 2-in., 55-lb. seven-year-old whose feet did not reach the rudder pedals to fly an airplane across the country in a misbegotten publicity stunt--as long as a licensed pilot was beside her. At week's end a federal investigator suggested that Jessica's Cessna was overloaded for the thin Rocky Mountain air and wind shear may have induced the flight instructor to take over the controls in the plane's last few moments.
The brief flight and violent fall of Jessica, her father Lloyd and flight instructor Joe Reid was seized upon and transformed into a kind of modern morality tale of parents looking for meaning and morning shows searching for novelty. On talk radio and in coffee shops, her soaring spirit and tragic plunge were the subjects of outrage and debate. Overnight she became the poster child of parental and media exploitation, of an ethos that granted children too much freedom rather than too little, of a parental drive not content to let children be children. Many wondered whether the freedom to pursue personal identity had been pushed too far.
Reared by separated parents whose fuzzy New Age philosophy was that children should follow their bliss, Jessica was encouraged to pursue an adult ambition that ill fitted her. After her death so many of the bright words that preceded the trip take on a grimly poetic quality. Her father, in Cheyenne after the first leg: "This started off as a father-daughter adventure, and it's gotten wonderfully out of hand." Jessica, to the Times of London: "I'm going to fly till I die." Her father: "I think I finally got my job description in order as a parent. I used to think being a parent meant teaching things. Now I feel my job is to help them learn by exposing them to new experience."
The hype of the whole enterprise, in retrospect, seems reckless. Let us tick off the deceptions that everyone involved pretended were true: the trip was Jessica's idea; she was doing it for the joy of flying; she was truly piloting the plane; it was safe; she wasn't scared. For the most part, the public played along with this game, for it is easier not to question the received platitudes. Yet, looking at her taped interviews after the fact, it is clear that the dutiful little girl who didn't want to disappoint her father, who insisted, "I fly for joy," looked anything but joyful.
Instead of a bogus record that inevitably would have been challenged by a still younger child (the Guinness Book of Records officially discontinued its Youngest Pilot categories in 1989, fearing accidents), Americans have a macabre photo album of little Jessica. A mini-Amelia Earhart, in a leather bomber jacket and riding pants. A plucky, pug-nosed girl in a baseball cap who seemed more at home on one of her beloved ponies than in a plane.
Jessica's quest to become the youngest person to fly across the continent began last Wednesday in Half Moon Bay, California. She was to fly east in three legs, laying over in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, before finally reaching Falmouth, Massachusetts, the town where she was born. She had bumped down in Cheyenne on Wednesday night in a heavy crosswind. "The wind was pushing us out," she told reporters. "You just have to give the plane more power." According to her father, she had been assisted in the landing by Reid, her flight instructor, a veteran pilot and the president of the Half Moon Bay Pilots Association who had given her 35 hours of flying lessons. "We're trying to set a record," her father said, "but we're not trying to be stupid about it."
At the Cheyenne airport, the publicity machine went into action. The arrival was recorded by camera crews and a clutch of reporters, notebooks in hand. An exhausted Jessica seemed to understand that she always had to appear perky. "I enjoyed it," she said, forcing a smile, sounding, as always, like she was imitating adult speech. "I had two hours sleep last night." She was due to take off at 8:20 the next morning.
Cheyenne is a high-altitude airport, 6,156 ft. above sea level. The thinner air requires longer takeoff runs, and the pilot must factor this into the flight plan. "You may ask whether a seven-year-old did the figuring, and I don't know," says Charles Porter of Sky Harbor Air Service in Cheyenne. "A lot of pilots whose time is limited to sea level have forgotten and ended up in the golf course." The weather was ugly. A thunderstorm was moving in from the northwest, winds were 25 to 30 m.p.h. Thunderstorms are a potent cocktail for pilots, a possible mixture of updrafts, downdrafts, turbulence, icing and hail all at once. "I would have taxied up the runway and headed back," says "Red" Kelso of Cheyenne, a retired pilot with 52 years of flying experience. "There's no way I would have gone up in weather like that."
"The pilot is the person responsible for evaluating the weather conditions and determining whether to go," says airport manager Jerry Olson. The weather conditions were VFR--visual-flight rules--meaning instruments were not required, although another plane warned the control tower of wind shear. Jessica spoke to her mother on a cellphone as the plane was taxiing. "Mom, do you hear the rain?"
It was a sluggish, shaky takeoff. The four-seat Cessna seemed to shudder from the moment it lifted off Runway 30, and investigators have suggested it was too heavy for the conditions at that altitude. Everyone on board must have instantly realized something was wrong. Jessica's plane was equipped with dual controls, so that Reid could immediately take over in an emergency, and presumably he did--his arms were fractured more severely than hers, suggesting he had his hands on the yoke. In such a situation, an experienced pilot might have landed the plane on the golf course at the end of the runway or the four-lane road near the crash site. Instead, the Cessna was attempting a 180 [degree] turn to make its way back to the runway when it appeared to stall. For a moment, it seemed to stop in midair before it plunged vertically near the driveway of a single-story brick house about a mile north of the airport. It crumpled like a giant child's toy. Tom Johnson, a former pilot and claims adjuster for State Farm, was driving nearby and witnessed the crash. "It was struggling. You could tell it was overloaded," he said. "It fell like a lawn dart, straight down." According to the authorities, everyone on board was killed on impact.
Within half an hour, the plane was covered with a tarpaulin, like a shroud. Only its red-white-and-blue tail peeked out from beneath the covering. Soon the people of Cheyenne began to visit the crash site, leaving poems, flowers and stuffed animals. Two investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene within a few hours. The plane did not have a flight recorder, nor was it required to have one. Steve McCreary, an ntsb investigator, could not say whether Reid had declared some sort of emergency before the crash.
Experienced pilots were left to wonder what happened. Perhaps Jessica would not have been able to maneuver out of the storm, but Reid certainly would have. Warren Morningstar of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said, with dual controls "the pilot in command can easily control the aircraft from either seat. There is never a situation in which the nonpilot can put the plane into such immediate peril that there is no recovery." Only after an analysis and "probable cause" finding in about six months will the FAA review its regulations covering young pilots.
Jessica's parents seemed determined to give their daughter independence from the start: she was delivered in a birthing tub without benefit of doctor or midwife. Her mother Lisa Blair Hathaway says she wanted her daughter to have a feeling of "floating." Her parents seemed to embrace a philosophy that was a mishmash of '60s idealism, Emersonian self-reliance and New Age cliche. Hathaway describes herself as an artist and a spiritual healer. While Jessica was mostly raised in Massachusetts, she lived in Pescadero, California, a tiny onetime fishing village where old dogs lazily patrol the streets because there is no traffic. It was 25 miles to Jessica's father's home in suburban San Mateo County, where he worked as a corporate consultant and lived with his current wife. Jessica and her mother lived in a house without television, which explains why Jessica's mother did not know who Jane Pauley was when the NBC star came to call after Jessica's death.
Real life was the best tutor, experience the best preparation for life. That was the attitude of Jessica's parents, and as a result, they kept Jessica, her brother Joshua, 9, and sister Jasmine, 3, at home--without filing a home-schooling plan with the local authorities. Hathaway seemed to have a reflexive distrust for institutions and convention and a fear of stifling her children. Jessica did not have dolls but tools. Instead of studying grammar, the children did chores and sought what their mother called "mastery." Boundaries seemed to be off limits, and parenting seemed to consist of cheerleading. "They're getting a tremendous education from having their lives be in the real world," Hathaway had said. "What it takes to get this flight scheduled and done is much better than sitting in a math classroom." Whether or not her children could do long division, they were seen by the townspeople who knew them as bright, curious and confident. "You get the feeling that everyone in the family was at peace," says Zona O'Neill, a Massachusetts friend. "My children enjoyed being around them because they were so loving and happy."
Jessica became interested in flying after her parents gave her an airplane ride for her sixth birthday, which was only 23 months ago. She began taking flying lessons twice a week with Reid, who said she was an able pilot, though what that means for a seven-year-old is open to question. Her father footed the bill for the flying lessons--about $50 an hour--and also shelled out about $15,000 for the cross-country odyssey. "That's less than I'd pay for private school," Dubroff told the San Francisco Examiner.
He also admitted that "the trip was my idea but was presented to Jessica for her choice." No one disputes the girl was gung-ho, and her father became her press agent, courting all the usual engines of modern publicity: TV, radio, print. For all their New Age patter, Jessica's mother and father seemed to be stage parents of the old school, pushing their daughter in front of the curtain, hoping she would become a star, Macaulay Culkin in a cockpit. The week before the flight Jessica handed out signed photographs to members of the Half Moon city council. Dubroff spent $1,300 on custom-made baseball caps to distribute to friends and the media. They read, JESSICA WHITNEY DUBROFF, SEA TO SHINING SEA, april 1996. He also primed her to write a letter to President Clinton, inviting him along for a ride. "To visit you at the White House would be wonderful," she wrote in her simple, child's hand, "and clearly to pilot an airplane that you would be in would bring me even greater joy." (The White House did not accept.)
But Jessica's flight plan found a receptive audience at the television networks. It was an ideal human-interest story. Upbeat. A natural narrative. Good visuals. A telegenic little girl with a dusting of freckles on her nose. A challenge. A record. Triumph. End with slo-mo of Jessica throwing her baseball cap in the air. Music from Chariots of Fire.
NBC's Today show did an interview with Jessica, her father and her flight instructor. CBS's overnight broadcast did a five-minute interview with Jessica and her dad in Cheyenne the morning before her last flight. The day before the flight, ABC gave Lloyd a Hi8 video camera, so he could "document the flight," an ABC spokeswoman said.
But even while they were covering the event, some at the networks were chary. This was not a child prodigy playing the violin at Carnegie Hall but a first-grader flying across the country. There was something queasy about the whole thing, a little girl going too far in pretending to be an adult. On Good Morning America, Forrest Sawyer asked Lloyd Dubroff, "[The flight] does raise the question...I mean, when we hear this, we're kind of shocked. Is it illegal or dangerous or anything like that?"
To its credit, ABC confronted the issue of whether television was complicit in the tragedy. On Nightline, Ted Koppel spoke for the network when he said, "We need to begin by acknowledging our own contribution...We feed one another: those of you looking for publicity and those of us looking for stories." Then he posed the question of "whether we in the media...by our ravenous attention contribute to this phenomenon," and answered it himself: "We did."
J. Mac McClellan, editor in chief of Flying magazine, agrees. "Jessica's flight is the kind of thing that, absent media coverage, would never have happened," he says. So-called flying records by youngsters, he maintains, are a bogus concept. "We've intentionally ignored attempts like this here at Flying because we didn't want to promote the activity. It has no validity from an aviation sense; the pilot in reality is the certified pilot." The FAA regulations that allow children "to fly" with a certified pilot at the other controls are intended to facilitate teaching, not to encourage stunts. In what seems a semantic distinction, the FAA says Jessica was technically a passenger; a pilot must be at least 16 and have a license.
The gruesome irony is that the crash proved to be the best television story of all. Jessica completing her journey would have been the spirit-lifting final story on the evening news, the tale of human triumph over which anchors could smile winsomely and then say good-night, leaving the viewer with the feeling that all was right with the world. But Jessica's plane crash led all three network news broadcasts and headlined the front pages of newspapers across the country.
That night and the next morning, TV viewers were treated to a spectacle almost as disturbing as the accident itself: Jessica's eerily composed mother saying that if she had to do it over again, she would have done nothing differently. In Falmouth, where she got the news while waiting for her daughter's arrival, she declared, "I would want all my children to die in a state of joy. I would prefer it was not at the age of seven." The next morning she appeared on the Today show and told Katie Couric, "I'd have her do it again in a second. You have no idea what this meant to Jess." She even vowed to make sure the FAA doesn't revise its rules: "I can't bear the thought of them changing anything. Talk about setting people back!" Even at the crash site in Cheyenne, where she arrived with flowers in the afternoon, she continued to explain her philosophy of life. When a small boy tried to give her a teddy bear, she refused it, explaining that her children do not play with toys.
In Cheyenne on Friday evening, in an interview with TIME, she defended her own response to her daughter's death. Clutching a plastic bag of Jessica's clothes, she said defiantly, "I know what people want. Tears. But I will not do that. Emotion is unnatural. There is something untruthful about it." When she and her son Josh received the news of Jessica's death, Hathaway said, "Josh started to cry." Then she rephrased the sentence, as if the verb were somehow incorrect. "No, I would rather say he was in tears. He said he didn't want to fly anymore. I begged him to re-choose based on what he wanted instead of reacting to someone else's choice."
Jessica's mother even attached a patriotic gloss to Jessica's death, putting it in the context of the Declaration's rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." "I did everything so this child could have freedom and choice," she told Today, "and have what America stands for. Liberty comes from being in that space of just living your life." But the Founding Fathers made a distinction between liberty and license, the latter being freedom that is used irresponsibly. License may have been precisely the freedom Jessica's parents gave her.
One of the notes placed at the crash site says simply, "God's newest little angel." But angels, of course, have wings to fly.