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Loss of Oxygen
Cited as Possible Cause of Jet's Wayward Flight, Crash
Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News: The Dallas Morning News -
Copyright (C) 1999 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune
Business News; Source: World Reporter (TM)
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
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
"We figure these guys were dead for most of the trip," one
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
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
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
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 officials said.
All required maintenance was current, the officials said.
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
It also has a depressurization warning system.
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
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
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 wreckage.
"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
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 with it.
"They did everything that could humanly be done, and they
were looking out for the safety of everyone involved."
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 lost contact.
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 refueling tanker.
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
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.