Small Planes, Big Problems

JESSICA DUBROFF has joined a sad club. Will Rogers, Buddy Holly, Knute Rockne, Rocky Marciano and at least 10 sitting U.S. congressmen also died in tiny planes. So do more than 700 other Americans annually -- far more than die in major airline crashes, even in the industry's worst years. Flying in small private planes is still safer than driving; nearly as many motorists are killed every year at railroad crossings alone. But each celebrity death raises new concerns about all those little planes jockeying for airspace with big jetliners, hang gliders, ultralights and hot-air balloons, in increasingly crowded skies.

The nation's 650,000 private pilots have far more freedom than big-jet jockeys -- and far more autonomy than most passengers suspect. Commercial pilots must follow set rules for taking off in bad weather, for example, but the go decision for a small plane is the pilot's alone. Not every plane can be tracked by radar; some don't file flight plans or carry working radios. Even if there were more requirements, there's nobody to enforce them. "I never talk to controllers at all," says Mariana Gosnell, whose book "Zero Three Bravo" details her cross-country solo flight in a 1950 single-engine Luscombe Silvaire. Only about 700 of the 13,000 U.S. airfields have control towers. In the wide-open skies where most small planes fly, there's little need for controllers, even if the FAA could afford them.

Small aircraft do face restrictions around busy airports; disputes have simmered for years as FAA officials tried to keep the tiny planes' interests, schedules and flight paths from colliding -- literally -- with major carriers. Frequently, the little pilots have won, thanks to the lobbying clout of the 340,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. In the late 1980s, when the FAA tried to tighten rules after an errant small plane collided with an Aeromexico jet over southern California, killing 82 people, the AOPA blanketed Congress with 80,000 protest letters, and the FAA backed down. "If our members think a regulation can improve safety, they'll support it," says the AOPA's Drew Steketee. "If it's a knee-jerk reaction with no benefit, they won't."

The AOPA thinks there is no reason to set age restrictions on student pilots, even though it discourages quests for youngest-ever records like Jessica Dubroff's. Most pilots insist her age wasn't responsible for the tragedy; lack of adult judgment was. "Kids do extremely well flying -- they've grown up in the video-game generation, so they have good eye-hand coordination," says Steketee. "And when an adult can easily take control, this is not a hazardous situation."

Setting age limits for landings and takeoffs -- when most crashes occur -- seems reasonable, but the AOPA isn't convinced. Pilots believe regulations can't guarantee good judgment or eliminate all the safety hazards that exist. A few sensible rules, however, might protect some of them from their own bad calls.