I read with sadness recently of the tragic death of a 17-year-old boy whose small plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean near American Samoa. He was trying to set a record to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world in a single-engine plane.
Also aboard was his father, who is presumed dead, but whose body has not been recovered. While the father also was a pilot, the boy was scheduled to be at the controls for the duration of the flight in order to qualify for the record.
To be fair to the young man, his stated purpose was to raise money for a charity; but to be honest at the same time, what gave the story human interest news value – the “news hook,” if you will – was his youth and the world record for “youngest” that would have been set, had he succeeded. And therein lies a potential for more crises and more tragedies that can easily be averted.
The well-known Guinness Book of Records has long been the final arbiter of all sorts of arguments about all sorts of feats and records. It began in 1951, when Sir Hugh Beaver, then chairman of the famed Guinness Brewery, was out on a disappointing shoot one day. He missed a kill when the game bird in his sights took off too fast for his trigger finger to react, and Beaver began to wonder: What is the fastest bird in the world? His inquisitive mind led to other questions – and answers – and soon a book of records and superlatives was born, and publishing history was made. A copy of the book was invariably kept in pubs to settle bar bets before fisticuffs broke out. (You can read its history here).
But along the way, some ego-driven people seeking a fleeting moment of self-glory, began risking their necks just to get into the book. Thus began a list of categories of youngest this or youngest that. And that’s when people started getting themselves into trouble. Or dying.
In recent years, a string of just-past-puberty teens began vying to become the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly. Sailing is something I know a little about, and I can tell you that some of these ventures were fool-hearty, to put it mildly. One teenage boy, who set out in a questionably sea-worthy vessel, had so many problems with the boat along the way that his father had to fly into any number of ports of call around the world and oversee major boat repairs before the boy could shove off again. His hopes at a record were dashed when another boy, younger by just months, beat his record only weeks later. The first boy’s 16-year-old sister tried to match her older brother’s accomplishment but failed and almost lost her life in her attempt to become the youngest girl to single-handedly sail around the world. Her small boat was dismasted in a storm in the Southern Indian Ocean. She was rescued by a freighter after drifting at sea for three days with pirates all around, forcing her to be judicious with her distress calls, which further imperiled her life. A still younger Dutch girl then sued her own government to be permitted to leave port in her quest to become the youngest. The Dutch government – acting in loco parentis – had tried to block her attempt in the interest of her own safety. She prevailed in court and at sea.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. A dozen years ago, a seven-year-old girl, attempting to become the youngest “pilot” to fly cross-country, crashed her single engine plane after takeoff from an airport in Wyoming. She, her instructor and her father all perished. Bear in mind that she did not possess a student pilot’s certificate or medical certificate, neither of which she could obtain until she turned 16. Could she even see over the instruments? Were her legs long enough for her feet to reach the rudder pedals?
I could go on, but you get the idea. So, why do they do it?
When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he simply replied, “Because it’s there.” In other words, he wanted simply to stand at the top of the world, “because it’s there,” and because it had never before been done and he undoubtedly wanted to know if it could be done.
None of these young sailors or pilots seek to be “the first” at anything; they just want to be “the youngest.” It is not the act, it’s the age. And that puts peoples’ lives at risk – not just the glory-seekers, but those who invariably are sent to rescue these fools. And this should stop. Groups like Guinness and the World Sailing Sea Record Council and their ilk can help save future lives simply by refusing to list any dangerous “Youngest” categories. (Some sailing organizations have already done so).
Being the youngest at something proves nothing, as I see it, and should not be equated with an actual achievement, such as being the first at something. Charles Lindbergh was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a plane. Does that mean a five-year-old should try it? What would that prove, other than questionable parenting skills?
That boy who sailed around the world in an attempt to be the youngest, but who was supplanted shortly by a younger sailor, had his hopes pinned on making a fortune selling books and videos and becoming a reality TV star. None of this came to fruition – and why would it? What special talent does a “youngest” have, other than being younger than the next guy or gal. So what? Tomorrow they will all be older.
You may have noticed that I omitted the names of any of these would-be youngest record breakers in this post. That was intentional. Why give them any more underserved time in the sun? Why encourage them? Why be an enabler?
My heart goes out to the family of the boy who recently died at the controls of his plane, but this needs to stop before others are killed. If a 17-year-old becomes the youngest to do this or that, it’s only a matter of time before a 16-year-old turns up aiming to dethrone the current current record holder.
If somebody does become the youngest at doing something inherently dangerous on the way to being the first, fine. But holding out the false promise of fame and glory as a way of enticing more pimply-faced kids to risk their lives is just wrong. It can and should be stopped and before any more lives are lost.
And if Guinness stops publicizing them, others may follow its lead. And if there’s no “glory” to be obtained, maybe there will be fewer tragic funerals to attend.