A little girl and her big dream died here Thursday morning.
Jessica Dubroff, a 7-year-old student pilot from Pescadero, Calif., taking off on the second leg of an audacious quest to become the youngest person ever to complete a round-trip flight across the country, was killed early Thursday when her single-engine plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Cheyenne Airport.
Her father, Lloyd Dubroff, 57, and her flight instructor, Joe Reid, also died when the plane nose-dived into the driveway of a single-story brick home in a residential area about one mile north of the airport.
Witnesses said the four-seat Cessna Cardinal 177 appeared in trouble almost from the moment it lifted off from Runway 30 in heavy rain and gusty winds, and was attempting to return to the airport when it stalled and fell nearly vertically to the ground.
“It was trying to gain altitude but was never in control. It was in trouble as soon as it was in the air,” said Tom Johnson, an insurance company claims representative and veteran pilot who saw the crash. “I observed it to be overloaded. It was a slow, mushy type of takeoff.”
The crash immediately revived a a debate over the propriety of allowing very young pilots to fly, even under the watchful eye of a flight instructor, who under Federal Aviation Administration rules must be in a position to take control of the aircraft and is legally considered to be the pilot.
The FAA said it will reassess its policy allowing very young children to take the controls.
Airport officials here said they did not know who was at the controls of the dual-control Cessna when it departed at 8:24 a.m. (7:24 a.m. PDT).
Flying at such a young age was only one part of an unconventional upbringing that Jessica’s parents have described as centered around real-life experiences rather than schooling. Her mother, Lisa Hathaway, told the San Francisco Examiner last month that she had decided not to send Jessica or her two siblings - brother Joshua, 9, and sister Jasmine, 3 - to school and not to homeschool them either. “They’re getting a tremendous education from having their lives be in the real world,” Hathaway told the Examiner. “What it takes to get this flight scheduled and done is much better than sitting in a math classroom.”
On Tuesday, Lloyd Dubroff said he was inspired by another young girl’s cross-country flight several years ago, and when Jessica expressed an interest in flying, he asked her if she would like to try such a flight. She agreed. “I’m the culprit,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
But he also said his daughter was the impetus. She “dragged her mother and me into this” rather than being pushed by her parents, AP quoted him as saying. Her interest in flying began after her parents gave her an airplane ride for her sixth birthday.
In Massachusetts, where Jessica’s mother had flown to await the arrival of Jessica and her ex-husband, Hathaway said children should be permitted to fly if they want to. “Clearly I would want all my children to die in a state of joy, but not at age 7,” AP quoted her as saying.
Jessica, whose flying lessons began last November, began what was to be an eight-day, 6,900-mile journey on Wednesday from Half Moon Bay, Calif., to Falmouth, Mass., and back. She had logged about 32 hours of flight time before beginning her attempt to best a record set by a San Antonio boy, who turned 8 the day after he completed a nine-day flight in 1991. At 4 feet 2 inches tall, the brown-haired girl needed special extenders to reach the plane’s pedals.
Jessica’s plan was to stop in Fort Wayne, Ind., en route to Falmouth and to visit Washington, D.C., Saturday on the way back to California. She had written to President Clinton to invite him up for a ride, but the White House had replied that the president would not be available, her father said.
Under FAA rules, the minimum age for holding a pilot’s license is 16, and anyone younger flying a plane is legally considered to be a passenger. Several years ago, the Guinness Book of Records eliminated its “youngest pilot” category out of concern it might encourage unsafe flying.
“I fly for joy,” Jessica said before leaving California. “I just enjoy being up in the air, floating.”
Weather conditions Thursday morning at the Cheyenne airport were not atypical for early spring near the front range of the Rockies. It was raining, with some sleet, a thunderstorm was moving east from the mountains, and winds were at 25 to 30 mph. “Spring in the Rockies,” said airport manager Geral K. Olson.
But Johnson, the pilot who observed the takeoff and crash as he drove to work, said conditions were severe enough to test even a far more seasoned pilot.
“I question the judgment of any pilot who would attempt anything like that,” said Johnson, noting that the Cheyenne Airport is at an elevation of around 6,000 feet, where thinner air makes it more difficult to achieve lift, particularly for a heavily loaded plane.
Johnson said the plane, which never rose above 400 feet, appeared to be trying to turn for a return to the airport, rather than attempt a crash landing at a golf course just west of the field. When the Cessna stalled, he said, it “fell like a lawn dart, straight down.”
The plane landed in a driveway, just 20 feet from a house.
Cheyenne Police Chief John Powell, who lives just a half-block away, rushed to the scene within a minute of the accident “to see if there was anything we could do. Unfortunately it was obvious there was not.”