Don’t let someone pressure you into doing something foolish. You probably heard this sentiment (or some form of it) as a child—as a pilot, foolish mistakes can be deadly, and sometimes very public. You may know someone who did something foolish with an airplane and ended up on the local or national news.
This isn’t just stunt flying gone bad—it can be a pilot who bows to external pressures such as get-there-itis or makes decisions when compromised by fatigue. Saying no to a flight, especially when you have passengers on board, can be very difficult—but sometimes it is necessary. When you read accident reports, you see the red flags—the mistakes or questionable decisions made by the pilots. This makes accident reports a valuable teaching tool.
Deconstructing the Dubroff Crash
April 11 is the anniversary of a Cessna 177B crash in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1996. The flight had captured national attention as its purpose was for 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff to set a record as the youngest pilot (I’m compelled to use finger quotes here) to fly across the United States. She was accompanied by 52-year-old Joe Reid, a full-time stock broker and part-time flight instructor, and her father, 57-year-old Lloyd Dubroff.
The flight, which began on the west coast and was supposed to terminate on the east coast was billed as the “Sea to Shining Sea” flight. Lloyd Dubroff was acting as the publicist, and created an ambitious itinerary for the 6,900-mile trip, which was supposed to take eight days.
I remember this story vividly. I was both a pilot and a television news producer at the time, and the whole concept of a 7-year-old pilot smacked of a publicity stunt. I was then and still am doubtful that most 7-year-olds have the strength, size, focus, and maturity to take flying lessons; however, the media accounts of her skills in the cockpit indicate that the little girl, who learned by doing, could fly the airplane. The videos of her flight lessons—a few were shown on television—show a little girl on a booster seat using rudder extensions. She has both hands on the yoke as Reid cautions her to use more right rudder.
I was still years away from being an instructor, but it didn’t look like she was really doing the flying. From the angle you couldn’t see the rudder pedals, so I couldn’t be sure. When I became an instructor I sometimes flew with children and gave them instruction with their parent’s permission. As long as they listened and followed directions they could fly, but I found that many of the younger ones were more interested in looking out the side window than flying the airplane.
The Dubroffs told media outlets that it was their daughter’s idea to try to set a new record for the youngest pilot to fly across the U.S., although at the time of the crash, the Guinness Book of Records had already eliminated its “youngest pilot” category, citing concerns it might encourage unsafe flying in the pursuit of record setting. The FAA also takes a dim view of this. Even before the Dubroff crash, the FAA stressed that the youngest age a person can pilot a powered aircraft is 16. In the accident report, both Dubroffs are listed as passengers.
Television Cameras Make People Foolish
You may notice that when television cameras appear, people get silly. They interrupt live interviews or run in front of the camera and wave. It’s all about getting attention. Lloyd Dubroff knew this, and was working with media, both national and local, to promote the flight.
ABC News supplied Dubroff with a video camera and blank cassette tapes to record the flight. At various stops, Dubroff was to exchange the used video tapes for fresh ones. There was ostensibly no financial compensation for the videos, but they would be used in a story in the future. The aircraft also carried boxes of baseball caps with the slogan “Sea to Shining Sea ” that were supposed to be handed out along the way. To pilots who saw the video of the packed aircraft, it looked overloaded —and it was.
The gross weight of the C177B is listed as 2,500 pounds. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimated the actual weight of the aircraft at the time of the accident to be 2,596 pounds.
Reid was somewhat skeptical at first about the idea of teaching a 7-year-old to fly, and viewed the Sea to Shining Sea event as getting paid to fly across the country with a little girl and her father on board, his wife told NTSB investigators. To his wife, he described the flight as a “non-event for aviation.”
At the time of the accident, he had logged 1,484 hours. It was noted that most of his experience was along the California coast, although his logbook reflected he had conducted eight flights out of airports that had field elevations of roughly 4,500 feet msl prior to the accident flight. Reid had several students in addition to Dubroff, who had logged approximately 33 hours with Reid.
The route was planned in effect by Lloyd Dubroff, who did not have a pilot certificate. According to a hand-written itinerary found on the body of Lloyd Dubroff, each day consisted of several hours of flight and several media stops. It was not determined if he understood how flight time desired and actual flight time acquired are often different things. One wonders if he had ever heard the phrase ‘time to spare, go by air’.
The days preceding the launch of the transcontinental flight included multiple media interviews, some of them before 7 a.m. to accommodate east coast live television morning news shows. On April 10 there was an early morning live television interview at the airport, and at 0700 the aircraft took off from Half Moon Bay, California (KHAF), and headed east to Elko, Nevada (KEKO). The aircraft refueled then headed to Rock Springs, Wyoming (KRKS), for a brief stop. The airport manager noted how worn out the pilot looked. The flight made it to Cheyenne at 1756. Reid called his wife that evening, saying he was elated by the reception they had been getting along the way, but added he was very tired.
From a TV producer standpoint, I found it hard to get behind the story, which was the same every place they stopped, be it on television, newspaper, or radio. People were always excited to meet the little girl. She was asked if she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up. She was asked if she liked to fly. I maintain that if they had delayed a departure to get more rest or to wait out the weather it would have made for a much better story—at least it would be different than the previous ones—what does a 7-year-old pilot do when she is waiting for the weather to clear? Does she play with the airport dog? Does she read magazines in the FBO? Drink the FBO coffee and raid the popcorn and candy machines? She certainly wasn’t doing the flight planning.
Per the witness statements in the NTSB report, Reid obtained a weather briefing on the morning of April 11 and performed the preflight inspection. The weather was deteriorating as a thunderstorm approached the airport, and they were in a hurry to leave because they had media interviews with the local television stations to get to.
Think about that for a moment: taking off and trying to outrun a thunderstorm in a Cessna 177B to get three minutes of facetime on a small-market television station.
When you are in a hurry, you make mistakes. The NTSB report depicts several slips, including forgetting to pull the wheel chocks prior to engine start and stumbling on a few radio transmissions, including asking for “special IFR” rather than “special VFR.” The aircraft took off in strong, gusting winds and heavy rain. There was hail, reduced visibility, and lightning in the vicinity. At the time of the accident, the Cheyenne Regional Airport (KCYS) density altitude determined from the ASOS was approximately 6,670 feet.
There were other pilots at the airport as the storm approached. A few were interviewed by the NTSB after the accident and described the heavy rain and strong and gusting winds that created issues even while taxiing.
It began to rain before the Cardinal departed. In her last telephone call with her mother, just moments before takeoff, Jessica Dubroff commented on the weather, asking her mother if she could hear how loud the rain was.
Witnesses say the aircraft took off from Runway 30 and appeared to struggle to gain altitude as it never got higher than 400 feet. The aircraft appeared to be turning to the right when it plunged nose down, coming down on a street and the end of a driveway some 9,600 feet off the end of the runway. The aircraft had 10 degrees of flaps in at the time of impact. There were no injuries other than to the persons on board, and only the aircraft was damaged. The NTSB noted the nose section and forward cabin area were crushed and displaced rearward along the airplane’s longitudinal axis. Fuel poured out of the wings, but there was no fire.
The photographs of the wreckage are jarring. What is left of the cockpit is a mess of fragmented instruments and the ear cup from a David Clark headset. There are photos of the front seats. They are bent, misshapen, and bloodstained.
Witnesses told investigators that the aircraft hit so hard they knew no one could have survived. The cause of death for all three was listed as traumatic injury. Lloyd Dubroff, who was sitting in the rear left seat, had his arms wrapped around his daughter at the time of impact. Jessica had a fractured right foot. Based on the multiple fractures in Reid’s arms and legs it was determined that he had been on the controls at the time of impact.
Any time there is a high-profile accident, there will be blowback in the form of people trying to legislate ways to prevent poor decision-making. This was no exception. Almost immediately, there were cries to pass laws to prohibit children from taking flying lessons. Thankfully, the furor died down after people realized this horrible accident wasn’t so much caused by a child flying but rather the choices the adults made for the child.
However, as part of the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996, President Clinton approved the Child Pilot Safety Act, amending Federal aviation law to prohibit a pilot in command of an aircraft from allowing an individual who does not hold a valid private pilot’s certificate, and an appropriate medical certificate, to manipulate the controls of an aircraft if the pilot knows or should have known that the individual is attempting to set a record or engage in an aeronautical competition or aeronautical feat.
A pilot who allowed this to happen could face revocation of their airman certificate.
Fortunately, most pilots who fly with children—either their own, friends of the family, or as EAA Young Eagles ambassadors, are more careful about the choices they make. For children under 16, the purpose of the flight is, more often than not, to generate interest or as a reward. I have flown with these children at the request of their parents, with the understanding that when they were old enough, if they wanted them, flight lessons would become much more serious business. But only if the child wanted it.
Parents are supposed to protect their children. My instructor at the time of the Dubroff crash had a little girl of his own, and he was dismayed by the behavior of both the CFI and the father. He remarked we will never be able to remove all the poor decisions from aviation—I believe the technical term is ‘you can’t fix stupid’, but you need to learn to recognize when you’re heading down that path—and know when to divert.