On Friday, Eric Bushouse will take the loneliest flight of his life.
When he grasps the control stick of a glider that day, his 14th birthday, the San Juan Capistrano teenager will be the only person in the cockpit. Bushouse's instructor will be gone and his parents will be thousands of feet below as the youth's glider soars high above the scenic Lake Elsinore valley, reducing cars, trees and houses to the size of pebbles.
And the tragic story of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old would-be pilot who died with two adults last year while trying to set an age record for flying across the United States, will likely be the last thought on his mind.
Despite initial fears by flight instructors that public shock over Dubroff's death would create a backlash against training young people to fly, teenagers are still taking to the air. Youth aviation programs in Orange County and across the nation still flourish while pilot trainers report no drop-off in young pupils.
Most important, say aviators, a law passed by Congress last year focused on halting the trend of putting ever-younger children behind the controls of an aircraft merely to set meaningless records. The law was aimed at stopping the record-setting and did not restrict the age of flight students.
"If Jessica had succeeded, what would have been next? Six-year-olds, 5-year-olds trying to fly?" asked Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. in Frederick, Md. "The whole thing was getting ridiculous.
"I think the lesson learned is that aviation is a serious business and not a place for stunts," said Morningstar, whose group represents 340,000 pilots across the nation.
Passed last summer, the law prohibits anyone without a pilot's license from attempting to set an aeronautical record. Pilots who allow non-pilots to take over the controls while looking to set records can be stripped of their licenses.
As a result, such attempts have disappeared in the last year, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.
In the year since Jessica Dubroff, her father, Lloyd Dubroff, and pilot Joe Reid died while trying to take off in a storm at a Cheyenne, Wyo., airport, "I haven't heard of a single one," FAA spokesman Mitch Barker said.
Public outrage over the crash created potential problems for youth aviation. Pilots were afraid of a backlash reaching Congress, resulting in age restrictions on flight.
"Most people interested in flying recognized [the Dubroff crash] for what it was," said Bill W. Griggs Sr., who has taught pilots for 30 years at Fullerton Municipal Airport. "It was about a parent's ego trying to foist a moment of notoriety upon their child."
Last month, federal investigators placed the blame for the crash on bad weather and poor judgment by Reid, a veteran pilot who flew out of Half Moon Bay Airport in San Mateo County.
The uproar over the ill-fated flight produced immediate concern among parents of student fliers in Orange County, Griggs said.
"Some of our parents called me to find out about [Dubroff's] flight and record setting in general," Griggs said. "But I don't believe there was an immediate impact negatively on flight training."
As far as Eric Bushouse is concerned, Jessica's death has little to do with him.
"No, I don't think about that much," said Bushouse, who will turn 14 on Friday--the first day he can legally solo in a glider. "Actually, I think they were sort of stupid" for flying in bad weather.
The teenager, who has been training for several months, expressed a confidence bordering on cockiness. He can't wait for Friday--or for future opportunities to learn skydiving or scuba diving.
"I wish [the flight] was right now," Eric said.
But the boy does know his stuff. Asked about emergency procedures, he responds immediately with detailed explanations of how to pull out of a spin or avoid potential hazards like storm-carrying cumulus clouds.
"We've gone over these kinds of situations several times to get him ready," said his father, Gary Bushouse. "His training has been rigorous. He's ready to fly."
The biggest obstacle to getting Eric in the air was not the training. It was Mom.
"My wife was adamant about Eric not flying," said Gary Bushouse. "She said, 'You can do this, but my son is not.' "
Father and son took the mother, Lyn Bushouse, to the airport, where Richard Ensign, an instructor at Lake Elsinore Soaring Club, showed her the flight operation and explained the training process.
Grudgingly, Lyn Bushouse acquiesced, although she was tempted to recant after watching Eric recover from a stall during a drill in which the glider spiraled out of control until the teenager pulled it out of its spin.
"She told me never to do that again," said Eric, with the smile of a teenager who has successfully tormented a parent.