The pint-sized pilot Girl dies pursuing record: Second-guessing a 7-year-old's dream.

April 13, 1996

IT IS easy to second-guess the wisdom of adults who permitted and, presumably, encouraged a 7-year-old to pursue her dream of becoming the youngest pilot ever to fly across the United States. It is even easier to question the decision to allow Jessica Dubroff to attempt a take-off in a light plane during a driving rain and possibly icy conditions. But none of the second-guessers has to bear the grief of her mother, Lisa Blair Hathaway, and other family members who supported the cross-country odyssey.

The crash killed Jessica, her father and her flight instructor, and the fall-out should spur a revision in Federal Aviation Authority rules governing amateur pilots. It should also prompt some reflection among all us second-guessers about our own complicity in the pursuit of record-setting feats.

In retrospect it is easy to place blame for bad decisions and raise the question of age-appropriate dreams. But how much of a role did the promise of publicity play in an ill-timed take-off? Would a delay have meant missing an arrival at the next airport filmed in time for the 6 o'clock news? Did Jessica's advisers push the envelope because they didn't want to disappoint her fans or flub their own roles in America's celebrity-news machine?

Ms. Hathaway is adamant in defending her daughter's right to fly and to take life-threatening risks. She also takes comfort in knowing that Jessica "went with her joy and her passion, and her life was in her hands," as she told the Associated Press.

Indeed, that is one of the oldest challenges of parenthood -- allowing children to take risks and knowing when they are ready for them. Plenty of parents will strongly disagree that Jessica was ready for the challenge she was allowed to undertake or that the goal was worth the risk it entailed. But one thing is clear. With the death of Jessica Dubroff, the world has lost a child whose zest for life was a precious gift.

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