Loss of Oxygen Cited as Possible Cause of Jet's Wayward Flight, Crash
KRTBN Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News: The Dallas Morning News - Texas
Copyright (C) 1999 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News; Source: World
MINA, S.D.--A Dallas-bound Learjet carrying
U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart knifed nose-first into a
grassy field southwest of Mina, S.D., on Monday after a ghostly ramble
across America with no one at the controls.
All five people listed on the flight
manifest -- Mr. Stewart; his agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan; and
pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue -- were killed,
A sixth person, a golf course designer from
North Palm Beach, was also believed to have died on the plane, according
to his employer, Nicklaus Design.
Jack Nicklaus said Monday that Bruce
Borland, 40, was flying to Texas because he wanted to design a course
with Mr. Stewart under the Nicklaus Design banner.
Authorities could not confirm that Mr.
Borland was on the plane, and officials at the crash site said they could
not tell exactly how many people had been killed.
No one on the ground was hurt.
Flight controllers frantically tried to
contact the Lear 35 by radio, and a series of military jets scrambled to
chase the plane as it streaked along, guided by its auto-pilot system
until the fuel supply finally ran out.
Capt. Kevin Bakke of the South Dakota
Highway Patrol said he watched for three or four minutes as the plane
sped across the sky, followed by two military jets.
Then a deputy thought he saw a parachute,
but it was the plane plummeting toward the ground, Capt. Bakke said.
"It fell out of the sky," he
said. "There was no glide to it."
Investigators said everything they know so
far about the flight is consistent with hypoxia, the condition caused by
a lack of oxygen that leads to confusion and ultimately to death.
"We figure these guys were dead for
most of the trip," one source said.
The last contact with the plane came near
Gainesville, Fla., when one of the pilots spoke with flight controllers
in Jacksonville, according to a Federal Aviation Administration
But there was no hint of trouble until the
Lear failed to turn west over Florida's panhandle for its flight into
Dallas Love Field.
Mr. Stewart, 42, decided to stop in Dallas
to meet with developers building a golf course near the Dallas North
Tollway in Frisco that would carry Mr. Stewart's name.
Mr. Stewart, who played golf at Southern
Methodist University before beginning his successful professional career
in 1979, was en route from his home in Orlando to Houston, site of this
week's Tour Championship. It is the Professional Golfers Association's
final tournament of the year for its top 30 money winners.
"It is difficult to express our sense
of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," said
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem in a statement issued from PGA
headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
"This is a tremendous loss for the
entire golfing community and all of sports. He will always be remembered
as a very special competitor and one who contributed enormously to the
positive image of professional golf."
Fellow golfer Duffy Waldorf, in Houston
practicing for the Tour Championship, told KTRH-AM that he considered
turning around and going home when he heard the news.
"He's an irreplaceable guy, not just
for his playing record," Mr. Waldorf said.
Mr. Stewart was among the best-known
players on the professional tour, in large part because of his
distinctive sartorial style. In a sea of baggy khakis, Mr. Stewart was
singularly elegant in his trademark knickers and snappy English-style
This had been a particularly successful
year for Mr. Stewart, who suffered a long, difficult drought through much
of the '90s before winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and
then his second U.S. Open championship, sinking a 15-foot putt on the
final hole to beat Phil Mickelson.
"I'm proud of the fact that my faith
in God is so much stronger and I'm so much more at peace with myself than
I've ever been in my life," Mr. Stewart said after the win.
"Where I was with my faith last year and where I am now is leaps and
The Rev. Jim Henry, retired pastor for
First Baptist Church of Orlando who used to minister to the Stewart
family, was one of those who gathered Monday outside the family's home.
"He was a wonderful Christian who had
Christ in his life and somehow in his death," Mr. Henry said.
"That brought a great sense of peace to his family in a difficult
and tragic time."
Stewart and his wife, Tracey, had two
children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.
The Learjet that carried Mr. Stewart and
his party was operated and managed by Sunjet Aviation of Stanford, Fla.
It was manufactured in 1976 and had made roughly 7,500 flights, company
All required maintenance was current, the
Determining just what went wrong could be
very difficult because the plane was completely destroyed at impact,
The Learjet 35, a light twin-turbofan
business jet that can carry eight passengers and a crew of two, is
equipped with an oxygen system for emergency use, with masks for the crew
and each passenger.
It also has a depressurization warning
Investigators from the National
Transportation Safety Board will be looking for anything that might
explain how the plane could have lost oxygen without triggering the alarm
or anyone noticing.
If the plane rapidly lost pressurization
for some reason, all the occupants would have had masks to wear until the
plane reached a lower altitude.
But if the oxygen system malfunctioned, the
passengers could have been slowly starved of oxygen, causing hypoxia.
That condition provides only subtle signs, beginning with a feeling of
well-being or giddiness. Within a few minutes, confusion sets in,
followed by unconsciousness and death.
Such losses of cabin pressure are rare in
private aircraft, experts said, but there have been similar cases.
In 1980, newly named Louisiana State
University football coach Robert "Bo" Rein died when a private
plane veered 1,000 miles off course at extremely high altitudes and then
plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
The flight was supposed to go from
Shreveport to Baton Rouge. The plane crashed off the coast of Virginia.
And in 1988, a Learjet bound for Addison
Airport from Memphis, Tenn., overflew its target by hundreds of miles,
crashing in Mexico.
In both crashes, officials blamed hypoxia.
Mina resident Lesley Braun, who lives about
two miles from the crash site, said her husband saw the plane carrying
Mr. Stewart spiraling down.
"The plane had pretty much nosed
straight into the ground," Mrs. Braun said. "There's not a lot
of debris spread out a long ways."
The force of the crash compressed the plane
to roughly the size of a large pickup truck. The only part clearly
recognizable as a piece of aircraft was the tail cone, resting atop the
"If you didn't know it was a crash
site, you'd think you stumbled across a trash pile," said Capt.
Bakke of the highway patrol.
The plane crashed in a field that was once
wetlands, and Capt. Bakke said it's possible parts of the wreckage are
buried 15 to 20 feet deep.
At a news conference Monday, President
Clinton said he was profoundly sorry about the death of Mr. Stewart and
the others who died in the crash.
"It's a very sad day," he said.
"I am very grateful for the work the
FAA did and for the two Air Force pilots and the others in the Air Force
that monitored this plane and made every effort to try to make contact
"They did everything that could
humanly be done, and they were looking out for the safety of everyone
There was some speculation Monday that the
military jets were prepared to shoot down the Lear if it threatened to
crash in a heavily populated area. But officials at the Pentagon strongly
denied that possibility.
Shooting down the plane "was never an
option," Air Force spokesman Capt. Joe Della Vedova said. "I
don't know where that came from."
Instead, according to an Air Force timeline,
a series of military planes provided an emergency escort to the stricken
Lear, beginning with a pair of F-16 Falcons from the Air National Guard
at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., about 20 minutes after ground controllers
An F-16 and an A-10 Warthog attack plane
from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., took up the chase a few minutes later
and were trailing the Lear when it climbed abruptly from 39,000 to 44,000
feet at 9:52 a.m. CDT.
Fifteen minutes later, the F-16 intercepted
the Lear, the pilot reporting no movement in the cockpit.
At 10:44 a.m., the fighters from Eglin
diverted to St. Louis for fuel. Fifteen minutes later, four Air National
Guard F-16s from Tulsa, Okla., took up the chase, accompanied by a KC-135
F-16s from Fargo, N.D., later scrambled to
intercept the Lear jet, too. At noon Dallas time, the Fargo F-16s
reported that the windows of the jet were fogged with ice and there was
no evidence anyone was piloting the plane.
At 12:14, the Lear jet began to spiral. It crashed
about six minutes later.
Staff writers Terri Langford, Kathy Lewis
and Richard Whittle and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Note that on 9/11 the military claims it could not intercept four huge airliners, the last of which was known to be off course for over an hour. This is a strange claim considering Payne Stewart's jet was intercepted in 20 minutes with only a relatively small number of people in the FAA and air force involved, when on 9/11 the entire FAA and military apparatus were focused on this huge event. For many more serious questions about the 9/11 official story, click here.
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