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Private plane in 1999 gets jet fighter escort { October 26 1999 }

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Inspectors seek to solve mystery of golfer's last flight
U.S. Open champ Stewart among 6 dead
October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 9:09 a.m. EDT (1309 GMT)

MINA, South Dakota (CNN) -- A private jet drifting on autopilot across the South and Midwest. Frost on the windows of the plane. Wreckage scattered across a South Dakota field.

Those are among the clues left for investigators Tuesday as they try to learn why a Learjet carrying reigning U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart and five others crashed, killing all aboard. The aircraft drifted off course shortly after it left Orlando, Florida, for Dallas, aviation officials said.

In addition to Stewart, those aboard included golf-course designer Bruce Borland and two officers of Leader Enterprises, the firm that chartered the Lear 35 jet. Robert Fraley and Van Ardan acted as agents for Stewart, said Jerri Gibbs, of the Orlando-based firm.

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

The plane flew on autopilot for 1,500 miles before nose-diving into a field in South Dakota on Monday afternoon. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began to examine the jet's wreckage Monday: Early discussion has focused on indications that the plane's cabin might have lost pressure, killing the pilots and passengers.

NTSB Vice Chairman Bob Francis said the investigation team included representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, state and local authorities in South Dakota and the FBI. He also said he expected the makers of the Learjet would join the probe.

Francis refused to answer any questions from reporters Monday night, issuing only a short statement.

"Highway patrol people were here about 10 minutes after the accident and they did not find any extensive fire," Francis said.

Pilots' accounts point to cabin pressure
The Air Force used fighter jets to shadow the doomed plane across the deep South and Midwest: They reported frost on the windows, indicating the cabin lost pressure sometime during the flight.

Pilots said when they flew alongside and looked inside the aircraft, the people inside appeared to be slumped over and incapacitated, CNN's Carl Rochelle reported.

Asked whether depressurization may have contributed to the crash, Francis said he would not speculate: "We'll tell you factual stuff as soon as we figure it out."

Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton said there was nothing he could do when his F-16 caught up with the Learjet over Memphis, Tennessee.

"It's a very helpless feeling to pull up alongside another aircraft and realize the people inside that aircraft potentially are unconscious or in some other way incapacitated," Hamilton said. "And there's nothing I can do physically from my aircraft -- even though I'm 50 to 100 feet away -- to help them at all."

If the plane depressurized, passengers and pilots could have died from lack of oxygen, leaving the aircraft flying without a pilot until it ran out of fuel. The plane was equipped with a cockpit voice recorder.

It finally fell to earth about 12:20 p.m. CDT (1:20 p.m. EDT) in a marshy pasture about two miles south of Mina, in north-central South Dakota.

PGA statement
FAA 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.

"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 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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