Air, childhood experts worried that 7-year-old was at controls Some psychologists reluctant to question parents' motives

April 12, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Flying an airplane may be so easy that a kid can do it. But it's not child's play, according to experts in child development and aviation.

Yesterday's death of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff, who crashed while trying to fly her way to a record, raised troubling questions about the capabilities of children and the judgment of adults who condone such competition.

"I'm appalled that a 7-year-old should be allowed to fly, even with an instructor alongside. We don't let a 7-year-old drive a car with their parents," said Susan Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Injury Research and Policy.

"Things can happen very suddenly," said Ms. Baker, who is also a licensed pilot.

Several psychologists yesterday were reluctant to second-guess Jessica's parents, especially if the girl really wanted to attempt the cross-country flight.

"I think the real question when people are involving their children in riskier activities is 'What is the reason?' " said Dr. Gregory Smith, a psychology professor from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who specializes in child development.

While it is healthy for parents and children to pursue hobbies together, he said, it becomes unhealthy if it leads to pushing a child to succeed regardless of the child's interests.

There is no minimum age requirement to fly a plane as long as a licensed pilot is in the cockpit with his or her own controls, and virtually all small planes have dual controls. Solo flights cannot be flown by anyone under the age of 16, and pilots who do fly solo must pass a medical test and have the written permission of an instructor.

"The FAA's position is that she was a passenger on that plane. The flight instructor was physically in control of the plane and legally responsible," said a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, Mitch Barker.

He said the agency is reviewing its policy, which is less stringent than the rules for learning to drive a car. Every state requires a driver to have at least a learner's permit, the minimum age for which ranges from 14 to 18, according to the American Automobile Association.

There is a long-standing tradition of pilots letting non-pilots take over the controls for short periods, and that does not necessarily impinge on safety, said Kevin Murphy, vice president of aviation services for the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association.

He said he's done it himself, although not during take-off or landings -- something that Jessica was reportedly permitted to do.

"We are saddened by the fact that the accident took place, but the responsible one was the flight instructor," Mr. Murphy said. "I think the association believes that although we really want young people to be involved in aviation we are concerned that the American sense of competition and setting records could lead to publicity stunts," he said.

Richard Gibson, director of the Human Factors program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said: "In a practical sense, the aircraft is designed for people with in a certain size and strength range, and I would suspect that she would be pushing that."

Jessica, who stood only 4 feet 2 inches tall, required special aluminum extenders to reach the pedals of the plane.

But flying a small plane under normal circumstances is not mentally or physically beyond the abilities of most children, Mr. Gibson said. The problem is when the unexpected comes up, he said.

"Once you are at altitude, flying is not all that difficult. It's not a high-demand sort of task. Mostly you are just sitting there," he said.

But Ms. Baker, the Hopkins researcher, has performed studies for the FAA on crashes of planes with students and instructors aboard and does not believe the dual control system is fail-safe.

For one thing, instructors are always making judgments about when they need to take over control and even a short hesitation can have disastrous results, she said. And the margin for error can be small, especially when taking off or trying to coordinate complicated controls with both hands and feet during a turn.

"On a plane you are listening to the radio and are controlling the plane in the three dimensions in which a plane is operating. And you can't pull over on the shoulder," Ms. Baker said.

Michael J. Mayer, a psychologist and counselor in private practice in Columbia, Mo., said people shouldn't assume that Jessica was pushed too far by her parents.

"I would hate to second-guess what the motives of these parents are. If it is self-serving, then you need to take a second look. But it's a phenomenon that we do like to be No. 1 and there's more drive to do the unusual than in the past," Dr. Mayer said.

"I do think there has to be a limit to that, a limit to the risks. Was she at that limit? I don't know," he said.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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