In what reads like the script of a bad horror flick, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report says that billionaire food-services company owner Thomas J. Stewart, 64, let his 5-year-old daughter sit on his lap in his helicopter's co-pilot seat in 2010. The Associated Press says that the little girl then began grabbing and kicking at the flight controls, sending the chopper careening to the ground just outside Phoenix. Five people, including Stewart, died.
The NTSB has been investigating this accident for three years and finally released its report last Wednesday. The report offered the following as a probable sequence of events which led to the Services Group of America (SGA) owner’s death:
1) It is "highly likely" that the little girl, perched upon her father's knee, suddenly pushed or kicked down on the controls;
2) Either Stewart, the company pilot, or both simultaneously, and too forcefully pulled the controls up – over-compensating;
3) The sudden and extreme pull-up tilted the aircraft's rotor blades too far backwards and down, causing them to strike the tail boom; and
4) With damage to both the rotor blades and tail boom, the helicopter went into a precipitous, whirling, unrecoverable stall and lethal dive.
Stewart's daughter Sydney, 5, wife Madena, 40, Madena’s brother Malang Abudula, 38, and company pilot Rick Morton, 63, were all killed instantly upon impact. The group was traveling from Stewart’s northern Arizona ranch to his home in Scottsdale, the Phoenix suburb where SGA is headquartered.
In a cruel twist of irony, the accident occurred on February 14, Valentine's Day, 2010.
Needless to say, lawsuits abound in this terrible tragedy. The estates of each of the deceased are suing the helicopter company, the manufacturer of the craft; SGA itself, each other, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth. The lawsuits will, of course, take several more years to sort through.
In the meantime, I am more concerned about an adult allowing a child anywhere near the controls of a powerful, sophisticated, complicated and potentially dangerous machine like a helicopter – or a car. It would seem that at that moment doing so might be “cute” or make for a memorable “photo op,” but, let’s face it. Kids are kids. That’s why they have us…to not just nurture them, but to protect them, even from themselves -- to keep them out of "harm’s way. "
In a real sense, allowing a child to even be positioned to affect the operations of, let alone actually "operate" such machinery might reasonably be considered a form of “child abuse” since the potential for tragedy is so present, even likely. No, I am not “blaming the victim,” Mr. Stewart, here. But it just seems so obvious and commonsensical that you just don’t let 5-year-olds near the controls of an aircraft when it is in flight.