A little pilot who couldn't and the parents who pushed

April 12, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

PARENTS DO THE darndest things.

For instance, some parents think it's just fine for a 7-year-old to pilot an airplane. And why stop there? Some parents figure a 7-year-old is not really flying unless she's piloting a four-seat Cessna 177B all the way across the United States.

Parents, huh?

You think kids have the corner on stupidity, and then something like this comes up. Little Jessica Dubroff, trying to be the youngest person to fly from coast to coast, ended up instead with her plane nose first in a Wyoming driveway on the second day of her trip. Her father, in the back seat, and the flight instructor, who was supposed to handle the plane only in an emergency, are dead along with her.

They don't know the cause of the crash yet. They do know that Jessica took off in bad weather because, I guess, there was a schedule to keep. You shouldn't wonder why they took off in bad weather. You should wonder why they took off at all.

Looking back on the tragedy, it's easy to see how wrong-headed, how foolish, how fool-hardy the entire adventure was.

Looking back on the tragedy, it's easy to condemn the parents who put their Lindberghian dreams ahead of the safety of their child.

So, how come so many people thought it was such a great idea in the first place?

There were many people involved. The Guinness Book of Records people no longer keep"youngest pilot" records because they knew that pretty soon somebody would have a 3-year-old behind the controls of a Stealth bomber, but they did say that Jessica's flight, if successful, would probably make the company's museum exhibit.

And don't forget media complicity. The media love these stories. Newspapers love them. And they're a staple on the 11 o'clock news where the happy-talking anchors get to coo over the

exploits of someone too young to understand the danger involved.

Heartbreakingly, in a TV interview yesterday morning, Jessica was asked what she thought about when she was flying. And she said: crashing.

This was basically a publicity stunt and nothing more. And look how it ended.

Why do parents push their kids this way? Because they get something out of it, if only reflected glory.

Without pushy parents, there wouldn't be world-class gymnasts or piano prodigies. And there also wouldn't be as many children who give up their childhood to their parents' dreams. Without pushy parents, the entire psychiatric industry would collapse into itself.

Jessica's parents have said they didn't pressure her to become a pilot. In fact, the father had said that Jessica "dragged her mother and me into this." Which is what you expect parents to say. I've never heard the parent of a prodigy say: "I made little Johnny do it. I twisted his arm every day of his life until he practiced. I made him practice until he begged me to stop. And then I made him practice some more."

Just how did Jessica drag her parents into this?

Did she plan the itinerary? Did she find the instructor? Did she make arrangements for the plane? Did she come up with the money? Was this her lifelong dream?

She was 7, and now she's gone because somebody thought it would be cool, or cute, for her to be the youngest-ever at something. And she had only a month's time to be younger than the last 7-year-old whose parents thought it would be cool or cute for their son to be the youngest-ever. He made it safely, which means only that there's such a thing as dumb luck.

Jessica was 7, remember. You know about being 7. Either you've had a 7-year-old kid or you've been 7 yourself.

At 7, you still walk into things.

At 7, you can forget to put on your shoes. When I was 7, I still couldn't tie my shoes.

Do you have the coordination, the experience, the mental acuity, the world view to get behind the controls of an airplane when you haven't even learned two-place subtraction?

I always thought the scariest thing in the world was a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a car. I know better now. The scariest thing is a parent who doesn't understand that a child is just a child.

Even after the crash, Jessica's mother was quoted as saying: "I ** beg people to let children fly if they want to fly."

As if that were the issue.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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