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7-Year-Old Pilot Crashes, Killing 3 And Ending Cross-Country Quest

By Tom Kenworthy
The Washington Post
CHEYENNE, Wyoming

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," he said.

The crash immediately revived 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. (10:24 a.m. EDT).

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 home-school them either. "They're getting a tremendous education from having their lives be in the real world," Hathaway told the Examiner.

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.