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Children at the Controls

Three months ago, when a California girl was killed as she attempted to become the youngest American to fly cross-country, federal authorities said they would reexamine regulations on underage pilots. Under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, a person of any age can fly next to a licensed pilot and maintain the controls "when it's safe to do so."

"Safe to do so" is left to the judgment of the flight instructor. In Jessica Dubroff's case, the instructor apparently deemed it safe for the plane to take off in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm, presumably because a record was at stake.

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But a bill recently passed by the House would, in Rep. James Oberstar's words, "erect some strong barriers" against such a thing happening again. The legislation prohibits anyone who does not hold a valid pilot's license from attempting to set a record or engaging in an aeronautical competition or feat. (The minimum age for obtaining a license is 17.) The bill still permits children to take a plane's controls, but only under circumstances other than a record attempt or competition.

The purpose of the legislation is good: to keep young people out of potentially dangerous situations in which they may be attempting - often at the behest of an adult - to become the "the youngest" or "the first." The measure passed the House 395 to 5 and was sent to the Senate. We hope it soon will become law.

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