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Payne stewart jets scrambled { October 26 1999 }

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Investigators arrive at Payne Stewart crash site
Plane went down after flying out of control for 1,500 miles
October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:17 p.m. EDT (1617 GMT)

MINA, South Dakota (CNN) -- Accident investigators were in South Dakota on Monday night to probe the cause of the crash of a runaway Learjet that carried golf champion Payne Stewart and four others to their deaths.

The plane had flown out of control halfway across the United States before nose-diving Monday afternoon into a field in South Dakota. There were no survivors.

The National Transportation Safety Board said a team under chief investigator Bob Benzon and Bob Francis, Vice Chairman of the NTSB would go to South Dakota on Monday afternoon. Francis said the team's initial probe could take three days.

Fighter jet pilots who trailed the stricken plane said its windows were frosted over -- leading to the theory that the plane may have depressurized after leaving Orlando, Florida -- killing the passengers and leaving the aircraft flying without a pilot until it ran out of fuel.

The plane was equipped with a cockpit voice recorder.

The crash happened around 12:20 p.m. CDT (1:20 p.m. EDT) in a marshy pasture about two miles south of Mina, in Edmunds County, an area about 20 miles west of Aberdeen.

Sgt. Scott Whirrey of the South Dakota Highway Patrol said he saw the plane fly overhead from his office, about 10 miles from the crash site, tailed by two fighter jets.

As the Learjet apparently ran out of gas, it plunged into the ground at a 90-degree angle, he said. There was no explosion, just a puff of smoke.

"There's not much left of it," said Michelle Sprang, of the highway patrol.

"The plane had pretty much nosed straight into the ground," said witness Lesley Braun, who lives about two miles from the site. "There's not a lot of debris spread out a long ways."

There were no reports of injuries on the ground.

Lack of oxygen?

Jerri Gibbs of Leader Enterprises of Orlando, the firm which chartered the Learjet 35, confirmed that Stewart as well as Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, officers of Leader who acted as agents for Stewart, were aboard the plane.

The two pilots were identified as Michael Kling, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Turk said the plane had flown as high as 45,000 feet (13,500 meters). Before the crash, he had described the plane as being "in distress."

Planes that fly above 12,000 feet are normally pressurized, because passengers would have difficulty breathing the thin air above that altitude.

If there is a pressurization problem, those aboard the aircraft could slowly lose consciousness or, if an aircraft broke a door or window seal, perish in seconds from hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency.

PGA statement

"This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all of sports," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said after learning of Stewart's death.

"Payne was a great champion, a gentleman and a devoted husband and father. He will always be remembered as a very special competitor, and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."

Stewart and his wife, Tracey, had two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.

Vistors, including fellow golfer Mark O'Meara, began arriving at Stewart's home in an exclusive Orlando community.

The Rev. Jim Henry, retired pastor for First Baptist Church of Orlando who used to minister to the Stewart family, was one of those outside the home.

Stewart, 42, easily identified on the links by his patented knickers and tam-o'-shanter hat, had 11 PGA victories spanning 17 years, including the 1991 and 1999 U.S. Open Championships.

Stewart, who lived in Orlando, had been expected in Houston on Tuesday for practice rounds in advance of the Tour Championship, the PGA Tour's final tournament of the year for the top 30 players on its money list.

Troubled plane shadowed by military jets

An Air Force spokesman says two U.S. Air Force F-15s from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, intercepted the plane shortly after it lost contact with aircraft controllers, and followed it to Missouri.

Pilots reported the plane's crew was "non-responsive" and that the cockpit windows were obscured by condensation or frost, an indication the aircraft may have lost cabin pressure.

Over Missouri, four F-16s from an Air National Guard unit based in Fargo, North Dakota, took over the escort mission, and stayed with the plane until it crashed.

The Air Force says additional F-16s were also scrambled from the Oklahoma Air National Guard unit in Tulsa, but were not used because the Fargo planes arrived first.

The plane originally had been scheduled to fly to Love Field in Dallas where Stewart was to have had a business meeting.

The FAA said the plane was a 1976 Learjet and was owned by Jetshares One, Inc., of Wilmington, Delaware. It was operated by Sunjet Aviation, of Sanford, Florida.

Shoot down not considered by Pentagon
The Pentagon said Monday it never came close to shooting down Stewart's wayward plane in order to prevent a possible crash into a heavily populated area.

In fact, a Pentagon spokesman said, the F-16 fighter planes that monitored the jet's flight were not armed with air-to-air missiles.

Two other F-16s on "strip alert" at Fargo, South Dakota, were armed, but never took off.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said, "Once it was determined it was apparently going to crash in a lightly populated area, we didn't have to deal with other options, so we didn't.

The FAA routed air traffic around the Learjet and kept planes from flying underneath it in case it crashed.

Air Force pilots reported no movement in the cockpit, and that the plane seemed to be on auto pilot.

The tracker planes reported the Learjet altitude was varying wildly from between 22,000 and 51,000 feet. One possible explanation for the so called "porpoiseing" effect is that the plane's autopilot was having trouble maintaining speed and was diving and climbing in an attempt to adjust.

Pentagon officials say the fighter jets could do little but watch as the plane completed it fatal fight.

In theory, the fighters could have tried to tip or nudge the wings of the plane to change it's course, but it's not clear if the Learjet's auto-pilot would have simply automatically corrected its course.

At 11:10 p.m. CDT (12:10 p.m. EDT) the Northeast Air Defense sector estimated the Learjet would run out of fuel in one hour, and calculated the plane would likely to go down in a sparsely populated area near Pierre, South Dakota.

At 12:16 p.m. CDT (1:16 p.m. EDT) the F-16s following Stewart's plane reported the jet had run out of fuel and was spiraling through the clouds. The fighter planes circled the area until they were told the scene of the crash had been located and their assistance was no longer needed.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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