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The Ghost Plane: For three endless hours the entire nation watched, horrified but helpless, as a runaway jet carried Payne Stewart and five others to its terrible destination

Payne Stewart
Payne Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open four months before his death.

This article first appeared in the April 10, 2000, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The pheasant hunters were still working the first of Jon Hoffman's fields in the early afternoon of Oct. 25, 1999. There were maybe 17 hunters in all, certainly fewer than the South Dakota Fish and Game Department maximum of 20. The visitors, who had paid for the right to hunt, mostly were from Texas, familiar customers who returned each year for a week's adventure. The locals, Jon and his brother Blake and a couple of their friends, provided local knowledge and hunting expertise.

The day was warm for the season, 65?, no clouds in the sky. The field had been planted with corn, the crop already harvested and stored for the winter to help feed the beef cattle that Hoffman raises. The men crunched through the cornstalks and husks, spread out in a line, noisy, sometimes shouting or whistling to flush the birds. When the birds flew into the air, maybe 10 or 15 feet high, the men put their shotguns to their shoulders and fired.

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Tom Kessler, the owner of a supermarket in Aberdeen, the third largest city in the state, 12 miles away, walked at the far end of the line. His major contribution to the hunt was his dog, Cocoa, a chocolate Labrador retriever, who ran around the field, further scaring the birds, then rushed to bring back the prey once it was blasted from the air. The men put the dead birds in pouches on their hunting vests.

Kessler's job was to watch his dog and to watch the men, some of them not very experienced with guns. He also had to watch for birds that might be on the verge of escaping to the next field. He was the last link in the hunt. He watched for trouble, for the unexpected, but he had no idea how unexpected the unexpected might be. The airplane crashed in front of him.

What was that? Kessler asked himself. Everything happened fast, too fast, and there was no noise. That was the strangest part, the lack of noise. He looked from a corner of his eye at first, then took a full what-the-heck-is-that gawk and saw the large silhouette of a jet plane headed directly toward the ground. The distance to the plane from where he stood was hard to judge. A mile? Two miles? Three? He couldn't even be sure of the size of the plane. He thought maybe it was a large airliner. He was startled. Shouldn't there be some kind of sound? The plane almost seemed an apparition. There was no roar of engines as it headed toward the ground. There was no explosion. The cornfield blocked Kessler's view of the final result. Did I really see what I think I saw? he wondered.

He looked at the other men. They still were involved in the hunt. Wouldn't one of them, at least one, have been looking in the same direction? Why wasn't anyone else shouting and pointing? How could Kessler be the only one who had noticed an event so cataclysmic? He hesitated even to speak.

"Hey," he finally said, "I think I just saw a plane crash out there in the fields. Didn't any of you guys see it? It was right there."

At that moment four F-16 fighter jets dived from the sky, one after another. There was a lot of noise. The jets dived again, coming close to where Kessler had seen the plane disappear. The jets pulled up, turned around and came back. "Maybe you saw one of those military jets in a dive," Jon Hoffman said. "They're probably just doing maneuvers."

"No," Kessler said, "I think I saw a plane go down."

The men walked toward a railroad grade in the middle of the property, from where they could get a better look. Before they reached the grade, though, the sound of sirens confirmed what Kessler had seen. Emergency vehicles were on the move. Something had happened for sure. Kessler called his store on his cell phone for information. He repeated what he heard to the other hunters. "It was a crash," Kessler reported. "Do you know Payne Stewart, the golfer? He was on the plane."

The men climbed to the top of the grade and stared at the activity in the distance. They joined the rest of America, watching the sad saga of a famous man and four other men and a woman and a plane, a tragedy and a mystery played out in front of a nation's eyes. The pheasant hunters were just a little later to me news than everybody else.

The story had begun more than six hours earlier, more than 1,400 miles to the south. The weather was also good in Orlando, low of 53?, high of 78?, sunny, one of those Florida days that goes home as the background in a vacation jumbo print. Visibility was perfect, more than 10 miles.

Pilot Michael Kling and his copilot, Stephanie Bellegarrigue, arrived separately at the Sunjet Aviation terminal at Orlando-Sanford Airport to fly a group of people from Leader Enterprises, an Orlando sports agency, to Dallas. The group would be waiting at Orlando International Airport, 30 miles to the north. The pilots would pick up their plane, fly the short distance from airport to airport and depart from Orlando International sometime close to 9 a.m.

There was always a chance that someone famous would be aboard a flight for Leader, whose client list included former NFL coaches Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, Chicago White Sox star Frank Thomas and golfer Paul Azinger, but no one at Sunjet knew that Stewart was part of this day's group. "It was no big deal to be carrying a celebrity," James Watkins, president of Sunjet, says. "We'd carried Matt Damon, Bob Dole, James Brown, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Bill Elliot, Rusty Wallace from NASCAR. A bunch of people. We'd worked with Leader in the past. We'd carried Payne Stewart a couple of times."

Sunjet, in business since 1992, is a family operation. Watkins's brother, Paul, and their father, Jim, are Sunjet pilots. James's son and a cousin also work for the company. Renovations completed only two months before the Leader assignment had made Sunjet's terminal and its hangar next door as modern as any general aviation facility in the country. Sunjet mechanics serviced various private aircraft from the area. An on-site academy trained private pilots for certification. NASCAR drivers Mark Martin and Jeff Burton had graduated from courses at the academy.

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