After teen pilot's crash, how young is too young?

Friday , July 25, 2014 - 6:48 PM

By The Associated Press

The deadly crash of a teenager on an around-the-world flight brought new attention to the dangers of record-setting youth adventures, and questions about how young is too young to fly a plane.

Yet pilots and flight instructors say that while some question the ability of kids and teens to deal with unforeseen difficulties, training matters more than age.

They say the real danger is when pilots push the boundaries of safety to set records for speed or youth, as Indiana teenager Haris Suleman, a newly licensed pilot, was attempting when his plane went down in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the 17-year-old’s plane to crash as he attempted to set a record for the fastest flight around the world in a single-engine airplane with the youngest pilot in command to do so.

Here are some key questions and answers about the issue:

HOW OLD DO YOU NEED TO BE TO GET A PILOT LICENSE?

The Federal Aviation Administration allows 16-year-old student airplane pilots to make solo flights, but they’re prohibited from having passengers and are heavily supervised by an instructor who closely monitors their flight from the ground.

A private airplane pilot’s license can be obtained at 17. It often takes more than required 40 hours of flight time to be ready to pass the licensing exam.

CAN CHILDREN FLY WITH INSTRUCTORS AT YOUNGER AGES?

The FAA doesn’t restrict young teenagers or children from taking flying lessons, and programs offer various degrees of experience.

The Experimental Aircraft Association runs a Young Eagles program were children as young as 8 can go on flights and help maneuver some controls, but the pilots are always in control of the plane, said spokesman Dick Knapinski. For example, a pilot may allow a child to help with a gentle turn.

Spencer Clark, a 15-year-old from Atlanta, said he started flying lessons at age 11, progressing from maneuvering some controls and contacting the traffic control tower to flying the plane by himself. Spencer said starting lessons as early as he did gave him years to practice for the solo flights he’s almost allowed to make.

Some people questioned whether it was safe to start flying that young, but Spencer said kids and teens often make better students by starting with less ego and self-assurance. Often, he said, they have more dexterity and quicker reflexes from years playing with video-games or remote-controlled planes.

WHAT ABOUT AROUND-THE-WORLD ADVENTURES?

Some in the aviation industry say being a young pilot isn’t as risky as trying to be a record-setting pilot.

Many questioned such efforts after 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff, her father and a flight instructor were killed in a 1996 crash in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during her attempt to become the youngest person to fly across the country. The National Transportation Safety Board later ruled pressure from national media attention may have contributed to the crash.

Stephen Belt, a flight instructor, pilot and chair of the aviation science department at Saint Louis University, said that while it’s not clear what caused Suleman’s plane to crash, generally anyone trying to set a record “is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to achieve something.”

“You’re faced with this desire to achieve your goal and push the limits of your ability, the airplane’s ability,” he said. “The more epic the adventure, the more pressure you’re putting on yourself to continue.”

Guinness World Records will not recognize attempts to break piloting records by those under 16 because of concerns about what’s safe or appropriate for young people.

WHAT’S THE RISK OF YOUNG PEOPLE TRYING TO BREAK RECORDS?

Although Haris Suleman had only obtained his pilot’s certificate in June, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t prepared for the demands of an around-the-world flight because each pilot has different skill levels, said Bruce Landsberg, who oversees the Air Safety Institute, a nonprofit educational group based in Frederick, Maryland.

Landsberg said the teen’s father, who had been a pilot for more than a decade, was at his side throughout the journey.

“They obviously were reasonably successful because from what I understand they had made it about three-quarters of the way around the world. If they had had an incident in the first you know 1,000 miles of the trip, then I’d say, ‘Chalk it up to inexperience,‘” he said.

Experts point out record attempts can be done safely if a pilot is prepared.

Allen Guthmiller said that’s the case with his son, 19-year-old Matthew Guthmiller, who in July became the youngest person to fly solo around the world. The South Dakota teenager is “not the type of kid that takes chances,” was well-trained and grew up playing flight simulator video games, according to his father.

HAS ANYONE PUSHED TO RAISE THE PILOT AGE?

After Jessica’s crash, Congress in 1996 passed a bill banning record-setting attempts by unlicensed pilots and barring licensed pilots from supervising such activities.

But there haven’t been any significant pushes by lawmakers or others to raise the age to obtain a pilot’s license — which in some states comes before a teenager can get a driver’s license.

“When you hear about tragedies like this, naturally people would raise questions, but for decades, it has really been an effective measure,” said Knapinski with the Experimental Aircraft Association.

The important thing, Knapinski and others said, is not looking at the age of the pilot but what really happened to cause the crash.

“The vast majority of flights go off without a hitch,” Belt said. “It’s still the safest form of transportation and I think that’s regardless of age.”

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