The news this week is full of reports of 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland’s round-the-world solo attempt, not to mention international rescue attempts after she got lost and stranded in the Indian Ocean. Coming so closely on the heels of last month’s news that a 13-year-old boy had become the youngest to scale Mount Everest, the blogosophere is drawing connections between these kids and 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff.
Jessica, you’ll recall, died in 1996 while trying to set a record as the youngest child to fly cross-country. That quote in the title of this blog is reportedly what Jessica asked her mom over the phone, minutes before she, her CFI, and her dad took off in a heavily loaded Cessna Cardinal. They encountered bad weather and possibly wind shear before crashing shortly after takeoff in Cheyenne, Wyo. The crash killed all three.
That was a dark day in April. I wasn’t yet working here, but I can get a sense of the tragedy from looking at our files. Then-President Phil Boyer spent hours and hours talking to television and radio news reporters and made appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and ABC’s Good Morning America, and other staff members provided almost 100 media interviews in the 48 hours following the accident. Technical Editor Mike Collins recalls that day very well; he and AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg had been monitoring the news coverage of the Dubroffs leading up to the crash, and shared a concern–which turned out to be unfortunately well founded–that the father seemed to be in it for the publicity more than anything else.
Now we have this most recent onslaught of record-setting attempts by youngsters. Sailing around the world… climbing Mount Everest? Who or what is driving these kids? In Abby’s case, she has an 18-year-old brother who recently made the same trip. In Jordan Romero’s case, he wanted to scale seven of the highest mountains in the world, and his father was a part of the Everest climbing expedition. Still, was I the only parent who got chills watching news footage of Jordan huddled in a tent after his record-setting attempt, telling his mom he loved her by satellite phone? Recall that he still had to make the perilous descent down the mountain.
I’m all for teens taking on challenges that will broaden their horizons and make them stronger and more confident individuals. That includes learning to fly airplanes and gliders under the watchful eye of a good instructor.
But there’s a line somewhere, and too many children are crossing it–or being shoved over it. And for what?Fifteen minutes of fame in our 24/7 news cycle? A possible reality TV show on a basic cable TV network? (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Richard Heene.) Let kids be kids until they can’t be kids any longer. They will have their entire lives to set the world on fire.