Young cross-country pilot tells kids to wait

April 12, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Jim Mathis, an 18-year-old senior at Towson Catholic High School, became the youngest pilot ever to fly solo across the country. But he said his parents didn't let him get into the cockpit until he was old enough to get a pilot's license.

The Federal Aviation Administration should be so wise, Mr. Mathis said. The FAA's minimum age for a pilot's license is 16.

It might have saved the life of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff, her father and her flight instructor.

Children who are not old enough to drive a car, Mr. Mathis said, should not be allowed to fly an airplane. His reaction is an example of the shock and sadness felt by young pilots and their parents to the crash in Wyoming that snuffed out Jessica Dubroff's dream to become the youngest person to fly across the country.

The child was in control of the plane as it took off in driving rain, but her instructor could have seized control in an emergency. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

Mr. Mathis believes that even under the best conditions, children of Jessica Dubroff's age are not fully capable of flying.

"An airplane is a very complicated piece of equipment," Mr. Mathis said. "Flying can be very stressful. I have a hard time imagining that a 7-year-old can understand all that you need to understand to operate such an intricate piece of equipment."

He added, "I've worked at arcades and most 8-year-olds barely have enough of an attention span to operate video games."

Mr. Mathis started to dream of becoming a pilot in elementary school when he and his grandfather put together model airplanes. He asked for flying lessons many times as a child, he said. But his father, a former pilot, made him wait until he was 15 to begin taking flying lessons.

"Some kids see other kids flying on television or in the newspapers and they think, 'Why can't I do that?' " Mr. Mathis explained. "And if their parents are flight instructors, they tend to think nothing bad can happen because they'll be sitting right next to their kid."

Frank Shoup, a flight instructor from Falls Church, Va., guided his son Elliott from Quantico Marine Corps Air Station to Portland, Ore., in 1989. Elliott was 9 years old at the time of the flight.

Mr. Shoup said he was shaken by yesterday's crash. But he said that if he had to do it again, he would still allow Elliott to make his cross-country journey.

"Life is full of risks," Mr. Shoup explained. "How about skiing? That's dangerous. Or driving? Elliott just got his driver's license and took an overnight trip with a friend to New York. That, to me, is more risky than flying across the country because there are so many car accidents."

When asked if, because of his own work as a flight instructor, he pushed his son to pursue flying, Mr. Shoup said, "No, there was no pressure from me. There was pressure from Elliott."

Elliott agreed that he was fascinated with flying and asked his parents if he could take lessons. When asked whose idea it was to fly across the country, however, Elliott answered, "It was probably my mother's idea. It sounded like a great adventure."

Patsy Hill, a 46-year-old resident of Arlington, Texas, said she was terrified for all eight days of the cross-country flight her son, John Kevin, took at the age of 11.

The flight was almost 10 years ago. But Mrs. Hill said yesterday's crash brought back all the anxiety she felt as her son traveled from Los Angeles to Washington.

"I know the same thing that happened to that little girl could have happened to my son," she said. "My heart goes out to her mother."

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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