Occasionally, the death of a stranger can haunt us.
It was 1996, a time when most of my mornings were spent with my housemate Adonica in Seoul, South Korea. We would eat breakfast in front of the TV and watch CNN – the American edition for the US GIs. One news story that had us captivated was about Jessica Dubroff, an American child pilot. The seven-year old personified cute in her aviator’s leather jacket and her pink baseball cap, which, slightly too large, made her ears stick out between strands of stringy hair. The reporter explained how Jessica – aiming for The Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest pilot – had been flying across the United States in a Cessna Cardinal 177.
Her adult flight instructor was, legally speaking, ‘the pilot.’ But little Jessica sat in the pilot seat at the controls at all times. Her father sat in the back seat, supposedly cheering on his little girl. But I had also imagined him talking sports with the pilot during the long stretches of uneventful sky. The father had planned stops along the way, where television cameras, reporters and well-wishers were there to greet his daughter – the star attraction.
At the start of her journey, the girl was bubbly and excited about the trip and precocious in her knowledge of how planes worked. A few days into her voyage, Jessica appeared again on television, her face morphed into a droopy, pale mask, a forced smile. Between clenched teeth, she chirped, ‘It’s been a long day. I can’t wait to sleep. I had two hours of sleep last night.’
A couple of days later, we awoke to the news that Jessica had died. The Cessna with the seven-year-old pilot, her instructor and father crashed soon after take-off. There were no survivors.
It seemed that the cargo of gifts from Jessica’s fans, along with severe weather conditions, may have caused the plane to be out of balance, leading to confusion in the cockpit. The exact cause wouldn’t be known until an investigation was completed. Adonica and I talked about being shocked and not surprised at the same time. The shock was in being presented with a lightweight, good-news story that went terribly wrong – not the usual ending for such human-interest news. But not surprised as the risks were obvious and the girl we last saw was tired. Therein lies the sense of guilt. We were being entertained by a situation that we knew was endangering the life of a child.
Eyewitness accounts described how the plane flew some 300 yards, tilted and jerked and fell nose first into the ground. One witness had remarked, ‘Went into the ground like a dart.’ I envisioned Jessica in her pink baseball cap, panicking and screaming, tears rolling down a reddened face – the instructor trying to calm her and stop the plane going out of control. My imagination was shamelessly adding to the entertainment value.
A few weeks after the accident, The Guinness Book of World Records decided to stop the ‘youngest pilot’ category for fear of encouraging unsafe flights. A month after Jessica’s accident, investigators concluded that the ‘pilot’ was to blame for the crash because it was his/her decision to take off in bad weather. As the legal pilot was the instructor, some have seen it as his fault; as Jessica was the actual pilot in charge of the aircraft, others see her as culpible. The investigators also believed that ‘fatigue’ and ‘media attention’ may have contributed to an ‘improper decision’ to fly in such conditions. In other words, Jessica was simply too young to fly.
Years later, I still think about Jessica – the novelty of the story, the shock, the guilt and the sadness for this little girl I didn’t even know. Yet, memory can play tricks. I’ve wondered if it happened as I remember it. I scanned the archives and first found stories about Jessica’s flight at the start of it all – about a little girl with a big dream. In the CNN files the story was simply entitled ‘Girl Flies.’ I stopped myself there from searching any further.