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Someone Should Have Known Better

Not many weeks ago, I was chatting across the Atlantic with Peter Matthews, an editor of the Guinness Book of Records.

We talked at length about the deadly seduction of fleeting world attention; of oddballs, true achievers and accidental adventurers mentioned in his book; of the endless cast of gluttons, dopes, the hare-brained and death-wishing who are not.

The interview closed as Matthews spoke of a company policy that suddenly - eerily, as of Thursday - was a prediction within a caveat: He said the Guinness Book no longer had either space or patience for life-threatening stunts.

“We just don’t want to encourage records that are gratuitously dangerous,” he explained. Especially attempts aimed at being the youngest to do this, the oldest to survive that.

“Somebody might take a 105-year-old out of a nursing home, tie on a bungee cord and push her over a cliff. Or a 6-month-old baby. I really don’t think I want to encourage that.”

If Lloyd Dubroff of Pescadero, Calif., south of San Francisco, got that message, he obviously chose to ignore it.

So he supported and encouraged 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff in a blindingly foolish father-daughter field trip to best an 8-year-old who last year beat a 9-year-old in being the youngest person to fly a plane across the United States.

Jessica (certainly not old enough to know better), her dad (who should have), and flight instructor Joe Reid (who might have shown tighter judgment) died when their Cessna Cardinal, battered by rain and bashed by hail, crashed in a Wyoming street.

Pilots reading between the lines of witness statements have a pretty clean idea of what happened. The Cessna - Jessica in the left seat, Reid supervising at her side, Dad in the back - took off in soaking, near-freezing conditions that yelled of instant wing icing.

Robbed of its aerodynamic curve, the wing lost lift and ability to keep the airplane in the air. Then drag overcame lift, the airplane stalled and literally stopped flying. With full throttle applied for takeoff, the airplane flipped and dived from 400 feet to destruction.

No one knows who was flying the airplane, and it doesn’t matter.

If it was Reid, he would have had little time and even less altitude for recovery. One distraction, one glance at a map or a quick reach to change a radio frequency, would have made everything too late. Since the Wright brothers, thousands of experienced pilots have been killed by departure stalls.

If Jessica was attempting the takeoff, she would have been too green to sense the impending stall, too untrained to know the solution, too short and too weak and too slow thinking to exercise a recovery.

But it’s too late now for triple guessing.

Yet there’s still time to accept that this tragedy goes beyond the tease of some mention in a book.

It reaches into that crass, now deadly failure of parenting skills where an adult protector urges, maybe even bullies, a child to be better than all, so the parent looks better than all.

The broken minds and failed lives are everywhere. Child actors. Teenage tennis players. Too much, too soon for Fatty Arbuckle and Judy Garland and Jennifer Capriati. And not enough examination of the insecure, estranged, unfulfilled, grasping, cocky and ambitious parents who started it all.

A child not old enough to take geometry cannot understand angles of attack and incidence nor their effects on airspeed and attitude. Short legs needing rudder pedal extensions cannot control a flying machine moving through three axes.

Jessica had never landed an airplane on her own and had no skills beyond fair weather, straight and level flying.

By presuming a child’s token presence at the controls created a prodigy pilot, a father proved he wasn’t wise enough.

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