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Golfer Payne Stewart Dies in Jet Crash

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, center, inspects the scene of a Learjet crash Monday that killed golfer Payne Stewart and four others. (Reuters)
By Edward Walsh and William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 26, 1999; Page A1

MINA, S.D., Oct. 25A Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart and at least four others streaked uncontrolled for thousands of miles across the heart of the country today, its occupants apparently unconscious or already dead, before it plunged nose first and crashed in a field near this north-central South Dakota hamlet.

No one on the ground was hurt and there were no survivors aboard the aircraft, which came down in a marshy area about two miles southwest of here.

The cause of the uncontrolled flight and crash after the Learjet 35 apparently ran out of fuel were not known, but aviation experts speculated that the aircraft may have lost pressurization and that emergency backup systems failed as the plane's autopilot kept it in the air. Loss of pressurization above 30,000 feet would cause occupants of the aircraft to lose consciousness from oxygen deficiency in one to two minutes, the experts said.

During some of its eerie, almost four-hour journey from Orlando to a swampy grassland in South Dakota, the Learjet was shadowed by Air Force and Air National Guard jet fighters, whose pilots reported that the aircraft's windows were frosted over, suggesting that it had lost pressurization. The Air Force pilots also reported that the Learjet meandered from as low as 22,000 feet to as high as 51,000 feet, but never strayed from a northwest heading.

The military aircraft were not armed with air-to-air missiles, and Pentagon officials said they never considered shooting down the Learjet.

"The [Federal Aviation Administration] said this thing was headed to a sparsely populated part of the country, so let it go," a senior defense official said.

According to the FAA, the plane left Orlando, where Stewart lived, at 9:19 a.m. Eastern time today and was bound for Dallas. Stewart, a two-time U.S. Open champion, was scheduled to play later this week in the PGA Championship in Houston, the tour's final event of the year.

The FAA said air traffic controllers lost radio contact with the plane at 9:44 a.m., just after they had cleared the twin-engine jet to climb to 39,000 feet northwest of Gainesville, Fla. An FAA spokesman said that air traffic controllers noted "significant changes in altitude" by the plane, but that the aircraft's crew did not respond to repeated radio calls from the ground.

Pentagon officials said the military began its pursuit of the ghostly civilian aircraft at 10:08 a.m., when two Air Force F-16 fighters from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida that were on a routine training mission were asked by the FAA to intercept it. The F-16s did not reach the Learjet, but an Air Force F-15 fighter from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida that also was asked to locate it got within sight of the aircraft and stayed with it from 11:09 a.m. to 11:44 a.m., when the military fighter was diverted to St. Louis for fuel.

Fifteen minutes later, four Air National Guard F-16s and a KC-135 tanker from Tulsa were ordered to try to catch up with the Learjet but got only within 100 miles. But two other Air National Guard F-16s from Fargo, N.D., intercepted the Learjet at 12:54 p.m, reporting that the aircraft's windows were fogged with ice and that no flight control movement could be seen. At 1:14 p.m., the F-16s reported that the Learjet was beginning to spiral toward the ground.

The Learjet 35 is a pressurized aircraft that also is equipped with individual emergency oxygen masks for the passengers and crew if the pressurization system fails above about 12,000 feet.

Tom Baum, a Learjet pilot instructor, told CNN that a panel light in the cockpit of the plane goes on if there is a problem with the pressurization and that a backup system should then automatically begin to function. He said Learjet pilots are required to wear oxygen masks around their necks.

In nearby Aberdeen, South Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Wherry said he and other troopers were alerted that the aircraft was headed their way. They went outside their headquarters and spotted the jet in the air.

"It appeared to be flying not in a straight line," Wherry said. "It was wavering. You could see by its trail it was not going in a straight line. Then it headed straight down, nose first."

Terry Jundt, who came upon the aircraft wreckage while on horseback in this sparsely populated region, said, "They are going to have a hard time finding anything or anybody in there."

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived after dark and said a full investigation would begin on Tuesday morning.

Bill Curry, a spokesman for Stewart's family, said the four others who were killed were the two pilots and Stewart's agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan. Fraley was chief executive officer and Ardan was president of Leader Enterprises Inc., a sports management company. The Associated Press said the pilots were Michael King, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27. The AP also reported that a sixth person, a golf course designer, might have been on board.

Learjet's parent company, Bombardier Aerospace of Montreal, said the aircraft was being operated by charter service Sunjet Aviation Inc., of Sanford, Fla. It said the Learjet 35 had logged more than 10,000 flying hours and 7,500 takeoffs and landings since originally being delivered in April 1976. Its range when carrying four passengers and a maximum fuel load is 2,527 miles.

Stewart, 42, won his first major PGA championship in 1989 and his first U.S. Open two years later. But his most dramatic victory in a major tournament occurred in June on the final hole at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, where he sank a 15-foot par putt to win the U.S. Open by one stroke over Phil Mickelson.

Widely known for his colorful golfing attire of "plus fours"--pants that resemble knickers--and tam-o'-shanter hat, Stewart won 18 tournaments around the world, including three major championships, and $11.7 million during his career. He once endured a major slump, going eight years with only one victory.

More recently, Stewart credited a newfound faith he said he gained through his children for improvements in his play and attitude. "I'm so much more at peace with myself than I've ever been in my life," he said after winning this year's U.S. Open.

In a statement, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem expressed "our sense of shock and sadness" over the death of one of the organization's most prominent members.

"This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all sports," Finchem said. "Payne was a great champion, a gentleman, and a devoted husband and father."

News of Stewart's sudden death also left other professional golfers reeling. "It is shocking; it's a tragedy," said Tiger Woods, the PGA's top money winner this year. "There is an enormous void and emptiness I feel right now."

Stewart is survived by his wife, Tracey Ferguson, a daughter, Chelsea, 13, and a son, Aaron, 10.

Walsh and staff writer Bradley Graham reported from Washington; Claiborne and special correspondent Jason Lemke reported from Mina. Research editor Margot Williams and researcher Richard Drezen also contributed to this report.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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