Terror in the Skies | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Terror in the Skies 

Watch out for flying children!

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It was a year of many triumphs for young pilots. Twelve-year-old Vicki Van Meter of Meadville, Pennsylvania, became the youngest girl to fly across the Atlantic. Leyland "Lucky" Vittert, 11, of Saint Louis, became the youngest person of either gender to make the same trip. Nine-year-old Rachel Carter was the youngest to make a cross-country roundtrip. Little Frenchman Xavier Gouin, 12, was the youngest to fly across the English Channel. And Baltimore's 16-year-old Jimmy Mathis, the only one of this group old enough to have a pilot's license and fly without an instructor, became the youngest solo pilot to cross the U.S.

Then there was one rather large failure. The crash of an Aeroflot jet in Siberia on March 22, killing all 75 people on board, was blamed on the pilot"s children after a Moscow magazine printed a transcript from the plane's black box. Captain Yaroslav Kudrinsky was evidently giving flying lessons to Eldar, 16, and Yana, 12.

While newspapers reported the Aeroflot tragedy with the appropriate solemnity, they also gobbled up the adventures of Vicki et al, producing gushing stories that surely inspired public relations flacks all over the world.

Perhaps we've missed something, but one question remains unanswered for us: has everyone gone mad? We're talking here about children flying planes! Rachel Carter started flying at a mere seven years old, when she probably had all her baby teeth and hoped to pass Santa and his reindeer. Isn't it enough that in the waning days of the 20th century we must consider each prepubescent we meet a potential (but better armed) Rambo?

Must we now also scan the skies above for wayward tykes whose single-engine planes might plow into our homes?

To put these precocious pilots in perspective, the accompanying chart takes each of this year's record breakers and considers several points: the number of years left before the youngster can legally drive in Illinois; the age group's intellectual capacity for flying, as assessed by Dr. Charles E. Sisung, assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School; Dr. Sisung's opinion on. whether that age group should be flying; and what the average child of the same age without parents rich and silly enough to give her a Cessna 260 and some flying lessons for her birthday--is probably doing right now instead of posing for AP photographers in a cute little flying outfit.

Child pilot's age: 9

Years to go for a driver's license: 7

Intellectual ability to fly a plane: "None. To them piloting a plane is a pure thrill, and nothing more than that The thinking of a nine-year-old still has the magical components of early childhood."

So, should they be flying?: "No. Absolutely inappropriate."

What they're probably doing right now: Crashing Hot Wheels cars through card houses

Child pilot's age: 11

Years to go for a driver's license: 5

Intellectual ability to fly a plane: "An 11-year-old can probably have more of a concept of dangerous situations. . . . The thinking of an 11-year-old becomes a little less concrete and a little bit more intellectual in that they can understand perceived dangers and anticipate the possibility of dangers arising."

So, should they be flying?: "No. Absolutely inappropriate."

What they're probably doing right now: Burying dead pet chameleon in toy coffin from old Dark Shadows board game.

Child pilot's age: 12

Years to go for a driver's license: 4

Intellectual ability to fly a plane: "They can understand in a more abstract way dangers and dangerous situations. What they lack is the experience to handle a dangerous situation on their own."

So, should they be flying?: "I personally would not let my 12-year-old fly."

What they're probably doing right now: Using an air mattress to raft down the basement stairs.

Child pilot's age: 16

Years to go for a driver's license: 0

Intellectual ability to fly a plane: "I think the 16-year-old probably is beginning to become more capable to do some independent planning. . . . What they lack, though, is the experience for dangerous situations."

So, should they be flying?: "I think a 16-year-old could, with a family that's into flying, be taught to fly with supervision."

What they're probably doing right now: Discovering bongs.

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