Tour and News

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

Photo: AP

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. SI Vault

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.

At the time the company owned 10 planes, ranging from a Cessna 421 to a Lear 60. The most popular charter rentals were four Lear 35s, high-altitude planes that carried a maximum of eight passengers and could fly at heights of 49,000 feet at speeds of more than 440 knots. The plane assigned to this trip was a 23-year-old Lear 35, partly owned by Stewart, with tail number N47BA. It had been flown recently to St. Augustine, Fla., and Wheeling, W.Va. Paul Watkins had piloted the West Virginia flight. "Normally he would have taken this flight to Dallas, too," James Watkins says. "He did most of the flights for Leader because he was friends with one of its executives. This time, though, he already was in Texas. He was getting a rating for another airplane. He wasn't around."

Kling, a 42-year-old retired Air Force major with more than 4,000 hours logged in jet aircraft, was called from a list of available pilots. He was known as a meticulous man who did everything by the book. He would arrive earlier than any other Sunjet pilot, inspect the aircraft longer. He was "almost prissy in his approach, wanting everything done exactly right," James Watkins says. The other pilots would smile at Kling's fastidiousness.

In 1985, flying for the Air Force at Tinker Field in Oklahoma City, Kling had met and married Donna Stout. They were religious people, evangelical Christians. As members of the same church they had gotten to know each other at weekly prayer meetings. She had three children from an earlier marriage. He asked her to marry him before even taking her out on a date. He raised her children as if they were his own.

"How many people get married without ever going out on a date?" Stout asks. "Our first date was our honeymoon."

Their shared goal was to establish a Christian ministry in Third World countries. Kling was a part-time preacher and a church singer. He hoped someday to buy his own plane and fly from country to country, delivering food to the needy and spreading the gospel. With the children grown and living separate lives, Kling and Stout recently had sold their house and furniture to be ready to move toward their goal. He had a second business selling nutritional supplements to earn extra money. The couple planned to preach first in Haiti. "We'd moved to Orlando for this next step," Stout says. "Mike already had been to Haiti a few times. We were ready to go."

Bellegarrigue, the copilot, 27 years old, was known as a free spirit. She was bright and lively. Watkins found repeat clients asking, "Hey, can we have Stephanie again?" Born in El Salvador, raised mostly in Winter Haven, Fla., she had gone to Ohio State and walked on as a synchronized swimmer. At 16 she'd won a silver medal in the sport for El Salvador in the Central American Games.

A friend of Bellegarrigue's at Ohio State was a pilot and took her flying one day. Bellegarrigue fell in love with the view, the perspective from the sky, the absence of boundaries. This was a picture from her heart. She eventually left Ohio State to get a degree in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach. Bellegarrigue owned a four-seat Cessna for a while in Winter Haven, giving flying lessons and working charters. Then she joined Sunjet rather than a commercial carrier to avoid any semblance of a nine-to-five schedule. She wanted the freedom to follow her interests.

"My sister didn't even have cable television," Stephanie's brother, Bobby, a dental student at Florida, says. "Her idea was to do the things that were shown on television rather than watch someone else do them. She always was on the move. She had a lot of energy. She'd say, 'Let's fly to the Bahamas,' and just do it."

She had spent the weekend at Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach with friend and fellow pilot Helena Reidemar, talking, going to a party, then coming home on Sunday so she would be ready for her flight on Monday. Kling had spent the weekend around the house he already had sold. He mowed the lawn. He went to church. On Sunday night he went to bed after a visit to a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza parlor and a game of Monopoly with two of Stout's grandchildren. "He woke up early to go to the airport," Stout says. "He said goodbye, and I said, 'Be blessed.' I had been up late the night before, so I turned over and went back to sleep."

She awakened again at 9:30 with a nervous feeling. She wasn't sure why. Her husband dominated her thoughts. He was expected to be gone for two or three days on this trip, and she missed him. She knew that he had work to do. She began to pray to accept his absence. She prayed for a while. "I felt in my heart I was supposed to release Mike, to let him fulfill everything he was supposed to be," she says. "I prayed for that. I can't explain it. I think that God was talking to me."

The flight from Sanford to Orlando International had been uneventful. After making a perfect takeoff from Orlando International at 9:19, the Lear 35 was on its way to Dallas. At 9:33 the air traffic control center in Jacksonville reported that it had lost contact with tail number N47BA.

The passengers on the plane were all successful men in the boomtown business of sports. They were going to Dallas to meet with developer Ted Blackard and his associates about building a golf course on a 720-acre plot of land in Frisco, Texas.

The key figure was Stewart, 42, who had undergone a personal and professional renaissance in the 1999 PGA season. After being drawn back toward religion by his friend Orel Hershiser, the veteran baseball pitcher, Stewart had become active in the First Baptist Church in Orlando and had seemed to settle down as a golfer and as a person. He had won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the U.S. Open in 1999, his first Tour wins in four years, and had been a prominent member of the victorious U.S. team in the Ryder Cup competition in September. Stewart was back at the forefront of his game, a familiar national figure with his knickers and tam-o'-shanter.

The proposed golf course not only would bear Stewart's name and be designed by him but also would be the home course of the golf team at Southern Methodist, his alma mater. Stewart had been involved a year earlier in the design of the Coyote Hills Golf Course in Fullerton, Calif., and had enjoyed the process. This was a new, lucrative area for him to explore.

Traveling with Stewart were the two top executives at Leader Enterprises, 46-year-old Robert Fraley and 45-year-old Van Ardan, who had arranged the Dallas meeting and had chartered the plane for the trip. They were not only Stewart's business representatives but also two of his best friends. Stewart had been a Leader client since 1985. Fraley was the godfather to Stewart's two children: daughter Chelsea, now 14, and son Aaron, now 11.

Stewart had been scheduled to appear at a one-day celebrity tournament for Charities for Children at Orlando's Bay Hill Golf Club on Oct. 25, but he had dropped out to make the meeting in Texas. The scheduling made sense because he was due to play in the Tournament of Champions in Houston the next week. He and Fraley and Ardan planned to talk with the developers in Dallas in the afternoon, then travel on to Houston at night. Ardan would return to Orlando on Tuesday. Fraley would continue on to Los Angeles to meet with Frank Thomas, then to Seattle to talk with Seahawks defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy.

There was a good chance that Stewart would spend time in Houston with the Rockets' Charles Barkley. He and Stewart had become friends at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "Payne really wanted to go to the Olympics that year," Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, friend to both Stewart and Fraley, says. "I was working at the Games for NBC, and he asked if I could help him with tickets. It worked out great. He wound up playing golf just about every day with the players from the Dream Team. He had a blast. He became known as the Official PGA Pro of the Dream Team.

"He played a lot with Michael Jordan. I asked him one day how good Jordan was. He said Jordan was pretty good but always wanted to bet big money on the matches, and he didn't want to do that, take the money. He did it, but he didn't like it. On just about the last day of the Games, he played again with Jordan. I asked what Jordan had shot. Payne said, 'Seventy-two.' I said, 'Whoa. Jordan must have got a lot of that money back.' I asked Payne what he'd shot. He said, 'Sixty-four.' "

His swing always had been beautiful—free and easy yet precise. His head had caught up with his swing in recent years. Seen sometimes as cocky and abrasive early in his rise to golf success, this young guy from Springfield, Mo., in weird domes had become a strong family man in early middle age, close to his wife, Tracey, their two children and his church. He seemed happier than he ever had been—renewed, rein-vigorated. He had started the '99 season without a golf-equipment endorsement deal, by his choice. He purchased clubs from a local discount warehouse, a mixed set of Titleist woods and Mizuno irons, and made his unendorsed comeback.

A symbol of his born-again faith was the yellow WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet that he wore, a gift from his son. Payne wore it for all four rounds when he won the Open.

Fraley and Ardan also were churchgoers, Christian businessmen, tough at times but fair and honest. Fraley, a quarterback on the Alabama football team that went through the 1973 regular season unbeaten and played for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl, was the founder of Leader Enterprises. He had been a tax lawyer in Lakeland, Fla., but was drawn into sports management when he started handling the affairs of a bunch of former Alabama athletes. He started Leader in 1985. Ardan, a stockbroker from MacLean, Va., joined the firm in 1990. He oversaw much of the golf business.

Hershiser, a Leader client from the beginning, says he and his wife, Jamie, "relied on Robert for almost everything. A lot of our conversations had phrases like 'What does Robert think?' 'Have you talked to Robert?' 'You sound like Robert.' 'Call Robert.' Robert was very reserved, but over the years he opened up to me. We were so close that one day [his wife] Dixie told me that he loved me like a brother."

"They were both fantastic to me," Jim McGovern, a 35-year-old golfer from Oradell, N.J., who is usually found in the back of the PGA pack, says of Fraley and Ardan. "I didn't have any representation—just my father—and Bill Parcells, who's a New Jersey guy, recommended me to Robert and Van. They treated Jim McGovern the same way they treated Payne Stewart or Paul Azinger. They called me all the time. They got me endorsements, invitations. They didn't fool around in business, but they were good people."

The final passenger on the plane was 40-year-old golf-course architect Bruce Borland. He was a late addition. Stewart's caddie, Mike Hicks, had been scheduled to make the trip, but when Stewart missed the cut at the Disney Classic the previous week, Hicks was free to drive with his wife, Meg, to their home in Mebane, N.C., for a few days. He would meet Stewart in Houston. This opened up a seat for Borland.

A golf course, like a celebrity autobiography, might have a famous name attached to it, but someone else usually does much of the work that goes into it. Borland had been a senior designer at Golden Bear International in North Palm Beach, Fla., for a decade, a Chicago guy lured south to work with Jack Nicklaus. He had designed or helped design a dozen Nicklaus courses around the world, including the renowned Colleton River Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C. More than a year and a half earlier he had talked with Dallas developer Blackard, who had arrived at the Nicklaus operation looking for information for another project. Borland happened to be in the office. The two men became friendly. Blackard thought of Borland for his new Texas venture.

"This was an opportunity for Bruce," Chris Cochran, another Nicklaus design associate and a friend of Borland's, says. "He'd never worked with Payne, didn't really know him. He'd been booked on a commercial flight to Dallas, but flying on the charter was a chance to get to know Payne and the other people. I encouraged him to go with them. Bruce's wife, Kate, encouraged him."

Borland drove to the airport from his home in Jupiter. Ardan gave Stewart a ride. Stewart had made a pancake breakfast for his kids before Tracey drove them to school. Ardan had had a busy weekend. He had celebrated his 45th birthday on Friday by taking his son, Ivan, golfing in the afternoon, and then two of his daughters had cooked his favorite dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy and pecan pie. On Saturday, Van and his wife, Debbie, had joined Robert and Dixie Fraley at a surprise 70th birthday party for Paul Azinger's mother, Jean, at the Grand Floridian Hotel in Lake Buena Vista. On Monday morning Dixie drove Robert to the airport. He was the last to arrive for the flight.

Before the plane took off, Fraley called the Leader offices and requested that someone call the Dallas people and ask them to move up the meeting by half an hour. Fraley expected the plane to arrive ahead of schedule.

The officer on duty at the command center in the Cheyenne Mountain headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), in Colorado Springs, was Navy Capt. Ric Mayne, 49. The Cheyenne facility—carved into the mountain and still stocked with enough fuel, food and water to sustain 800 people for 30 days in the event of a thermonuclear attack—is a monument to the cold war tensions of the '50s and '60s. Lights blink, computer and radar screens glow, and decisions can be made in an instant if strange aircraft or missiles should invade U.S. airspace.

The picture on Mayne's radar screen just after 10 a.m. was the green icon of an airplane heading in a straight line across a black background. This represented the flight of tail number N47BA. "The Federal Aviation Administration called for our help," Mayne, a 26-year naval veteran, says. "They said they had a derelict aircraft, not responding to calls. They asked if we could send someone up to look at it."

This was not an unprecedented request. Various situations arise in which airplanes lose contact with the ground, and military fighters are sent up to investigate. The military pilot sometimes waves to the civilian pilot, whose radio has broken down, and the civilian pilot waves back and finds a place to land.

When Jacksonville air traffic control lost contact with the Lear 35 at 9:33, the plane had just been cleared to proceed at 39,000 feet. All subsequent attempts to reach the pilots—"November-four-seven-bravo-alpha, do you read me?"—had been unsuccessful. Also, radar showed that the plane had not made a scheduled left turn to head toward Texas, continuing instead on its previous northern course.

The FAA's call for assistance was received at Cheyenne Mountain at approximately 10 o'clock. Two National Guard F-16 fighters at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., were scrambled at 10:08 and airborne at 10:10 before Mayne realized that an F-16 from Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., already was in the air and could reach the Lear sooner. The Eglin plane was diverted, and the Tyndall jets recalled to their base.

The pilot of the Eglin plane was Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton, 32. He had spent the early morning practicing dog-fights over the Gulf of Mexico against a slower A-10 jet, also from Eglin. This was a normal training exercise—swoops and rolls, imaginary warfare—held two or three times a month. Hamilton was surprised by the order to chase a civilian plane and investigate. He never had done this.

After meeting an Air Force tanker to add fuel in midair, Hamilton flew a course that would bisect the Lear's route. He was traveling at roughly 500 mph. The Lear was traveling at roughly 300 mph. Hamilton was told he would catch the plane somewhere above Memphis.

The chase took approximately 50 minutes. When Hamilton spotted the Lear, he slowed down to match its speed. He flew in formation with the Lear on the left side and then the right, flew underneath the Lear and above it. Visibility was perfect. Hamilton thought, as he stared from the bubble canopy of his fighter, that if he were standing and looking at the plane parked on the ground, he couldn't have a better view than he did now. He hoped to see people in the windows or at least to see some external damage that was causing some problem. He saw neither.

The plane was flying perfectly, a vision from a promotional video. The disturbing difference was that the windows all were frosted, clouded over, as if they were windows in a freezer. Hamilton immediately knew the sad truth: The frozen condensation on the inside of the windows meant that the Lear's oxygen systems were not functioning correctly. The plane was flying on autopilot. The people inside, whoever they were and however many they were, already were dead. "It definitely was a helpless feeling," Hamilton says. "To see everything else functioning normally and to know that someone was inside—and there's nothing you can do. It was something out of The Twilight Zone?

He radioed his observations to the Memphis NORAD center at 11:09. For the next half hour Hamilton flew alongside the Lear, an escort to a ghost. From Cheyenne Mountain, Mayne arranged for four fighters from the Oklahoma National Guard in Tulsa to replace Hamilton at 11:59. The FAA and NORAD were already calculating how long the plane would remain aloft before it crashed. Fuel supply and average speed and weather conditions were put into the formula. It was estimated that the plane could stay in the air for slightly more than four hours after takeoff.

As the plane moved north, the FAA cleared a tunnel of airspace for it, rerouting transcontinental flights that might cross its path. The Lear climbed higher sometimes and dropped sometimes but maintained its course on the same straight line.

Captain Mayne, in the mountain, could only stare at the little green icon. Surrounded by the ultimate in modern technology, linked to all the aeronautical resources of the most resourceful nation on the planet, he could do nothing. "It was very disturbing," he says, "to feel so helpless."

The news of what had happened to the Lear began to filter out to the public and to the families of the people aboard the plane. The FAA called James Watkins as soon as radio contact was lost. Watkins did not worry. He figured there was a problem with the radio. Sunjet had never had a crash. Watkins called Donna Stout and told her about the interrupted communication with air traffic control and told her not to worry. Then the FAA called Watkins again. This time it asked how much fuel had been pumped into the plane's tanks. Watkins became very worried and started to monitor the FAA's radio communications.

The media picked up the story in Washington, D.C. Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, received a tip from an Air Force source that there was "a runaway plane" cutting across America, chased by military jets. Robert Hager, NBC's aviation expert, received a tip from a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). This tip also said that Payne Stewart was aboard the plane. The other networks received other tips. The news was put on the air, announcers breaking into morning programs. CNN and MSNBC quickly switched to full-time coverage of the runaway plane. "It was a compelling story," a CNN official says. "A question you always ask about news is, Would it be the first thing I would talk about with my wife when I got home at the end of the day? That certainly would be the case here."

Hager and McIntyre, who by now also had heard a rumor that Stewart was on the plane, withheld mentioning the golfer's name on the air. Neither wanted a broadcast report to be the way the news reached Stewart's family or the other families. The first televised reports stated only that there was a runaway plane, that the Air Force was in pursuit and that the plane's windows were fogged, indicating that everyone aboard probably had died from lack of oxygen. Subsequent reports mentioned first that "a prominent person" was on the passenger list and then that "a prominent golfer" was aboard. Finally one used Stewart's name, and the dam broke. Everybody used Stewart's name.

Tracey Stewart heard the news at home. Gloria Baker, the Stewarts' administrative assistant, received a call from a friend in Chicago asking why Air Force jets were following Payne's plane. She thought it was a joke. Then other calls came, and she knew it wasn't. Baker and Tracey turned on the television. Tracey tried to call her husband on his cell phone. There was no answer.

Bobby Bellegarrigue was working on a dental patient when someone came into his room to tell him what had happened to his sister's plane. He left the room and walked by a lounge area where everyone was watching the television. He stopped and watched with the others in disbelief. The first calls at Bay Hill, where the celebrity golf tournament was taking place, inquired about Arnold Palmer, who is Bay Hill's principal owner. Was Arnold on that plane? The news had said only "a prominent golfer." Palmer was the most famous golfer-pilot in the world. Officials told callers that Palmer was not on the plane. The second wave of calls asked about Stewart.

In the midst of his round at Bay Hill, Lee Janzen, a friend and rival of Stewart's, a former client of Fraley and Ardan's, heard the news and walked off the course. Mark O'Meara, a neighbor of Stewart's in Orlando, left Bay Hill, went home, got into his fishing boat and rode across Butler Chain to Pocket Lake and Stewart's house to offer Tracey his support. Jim McGovern was at home in New Jersey with his three children. He saw the news on television, listened to the grim reports and couldn't watch anymore. He took the children to a park with tears in his eyes.

The media vans arrived at Sunjet, reporters everywhere. The vans also arrived at 390 Orange Lane in Casselberry, Fla., the office tower where Leader is headquartered. Reporters staked out the lobby. Donna Stout, at home, knelt with friends from her church and prayed. There still was a glaring omission in all reports. Borland, the architect, never was mentioned.

"For a long time there was no mention of Bruce's being on the plane," Chris Cochran, Borland's friend at Golden Bear International, says. "His name apparently wasn't on the manifest, so all the early reports said there were five people on the plane, not six. People said in the office, 'Bruce isn't on that plane, is he?' I said, 'Yes he is.' " Golden Bear issued a press release saying Borland was on the plane. The release included a statement praising Borland by Ray Underwood, the pastor at Palm Beach Community Church, where Borland was a member.

At 12:13 p.m. NORAD reported that the Learjet had approximately one hour of fuel left and was on a flight path with a 320? heading, traveling mostly over sparsely populated areas. At 12:16 NORAD said it anticipated that the jet would run out of fuel in the vicinity of Pierre, S.Dak.

A public debate developed about whether the Air Force should shoot the plane out of the sky if it imperiled a large city. Callers to CNN suggested various outlandish possibilities. Why couldn't someone change the plane's direction with some kind of radio contact? Wasn't there some kind of apparatus, a net or something, that could catch the plane? Couldn't some kind of Bruce Willis action hero take charge? "People watch too many movies," McIntyre says. "They were talking about things that were impossible in real life."

The possibility of shooting down the plane was never seriously considered. None of the planes sent up as escorts were armed. One admiral in the Pentagon was quoted as saying, "You know, if this thing veers off course and heads to Chicago, we'll have some really tough decisions to make," but the plane never veered. Theoretically the order to shoot would have had to come from the White House, but the idea of a U.S. president ordering U.S. military planes to shoot down a U.S. civilian plane filled with U.S. citizens, living or dead, would be hard to sell to the U.S. public. It never has happened.

The course of the Lear might have been altered to some degree if the military pilots had tried a daring maneuver, flying close to—maybe even slightly touching—the runaway plane's wings. This tactic was used by British pilots during World War II to alter the course of German V-2 rockets heading toward London. The Germans reacted by placing explosives on the sides of the rockets. That was the end of that maneuver.

At 12:22 the first of two final pairs of F-16 escort fighters was sent airborne by the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo. At 12:54 the four Fargo jets intercepted the Lear. At 1:14 p.m. the Fargo jets reported that the Lear had started to fall.

Watching from the front of his store on Highway 12 in the small town of Mina, S.Dak., was Clyde Virgil. The shop, named The Fort, is one of those general stores where a man can pick up a snow shovel, a box of worms, a quart of milk, a tank of gas and easy conversation all in one stop. A battered black-and-white television sits atop a display case. Virgil and two friends, John Beck and Ken Dunn, had watched the news reports about the Lear on the set's one viewable channel. Hearing that the plane was coming their way, they went outside to see if they could spot it. Virgil took along his large field glasses, which he uses to watch deer or other game in the clearing across the road. "It turned out the plane was easy to see," Virgil says. "These big contrails were coming from the jet, and the military jets were flying all around it. I watched for about 10 minutes, and, really, it became boring. I had just about decided to go back inside, but I said, 'Let's take one more look.' That's when it started to fall.

"It went down a bit, and then some last bit of fuel must have kicked in because it straightened out for a moment. Then it went down again and didn't stop. It looked like it was flying straight into the ground."

In Orlando, Hershiser and his wife were at the Fraleys' house, where they had rushed to comfort Dixie when they heard the news about the plane. Friends and relatives of each of the other families had gathered at their respective houses. At one point Hershiser went into Robert Fraley's workout room. Fraley was a physical fitness buff, exercising at 5:30 every morning. Painted on the wall in large letters was a quote. Hershiser memorized it: "We must care for our bodies as though they were going to live forever, but we must care for our souls as if we were going to the tomorrow."

The hole the plane made when it landed in Jon Hoffman's field has been opened again. He hired a man with a backhoe to fill it after the NTSB investigators left, but the families of the victims asked him to dig it out again so they could have someone search through the dirt in the spring for any remaining mementoes. Hoffman honored the request, so the dirt sits in five or six piles, and the hole is about 40 feet wide again and eight feet deep. Water is at the bottom on this day, left over from a recent rain.

A faded memorial wreath stands on a tripod, purchased by donations from the many television crews that assembled around the hole. A beaten-down dirt road where there never had been a road is another leftover of the media attention. Hoffman counted 21 television trucks in his field the day after the crash.

"There were 400 cows in the field when the plane came down," he says. "That's how I learned the plane was on my property. One of the guys who works for me came to where we were hunting and said, 'You'd better come quick, a plane has crashed in the middle of your cows.' I got there, and they were all lined up against the fence as far from the hole as possible."

Pieces of the plane still are in a hangar at Aberdeen Airport. Other pieces have been taken to other spots around the country to be tested and analyzed by NTSB investigators. The violence of the crash destroyed much of the plane. The bodies of the pilots and passengers, frozen solid before impact, fared no better.

The cause has yet to be determined. It probably never will be determined to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Soon the NTSB will release a public docket of all the test results and other information it has gathered. The five-man board then will sift through these findings and vote on a probable cause. A source close to the investigation says nothing definitive has been established, no plane part found to be the culprit.

"How do you figure it?" James Watkins says. "I suppose there are two major theories. One is that something went wrong with the oxygen system and everybody fell asleep. I don't buy that. Six people were on that plane, different sizes, different physiologies. The pilots were a man and a woman. Would everybody pass out at the exact same time? Wouldn't somebody take longer and react when he saw something happening? Not a button was pushed. Not a dial was turned. If you were in the cockpit, even if you were dying, wouldn't you have reached out and grabbed something, anything? I think you would, except....

"And here's the second theory: that something violent happened, like the bulkhead splitting open. That's a rare situation. It's maybe happened five or six times in the history of aviation. They say you have 10 seconds to react when it happens, but what if you're incapacitated immediately? Mike Kling gave classes in the Air Force on how to handle oxygen deprivation. I have to think it was something violent."

"The problem is that there are about 10 working theories of what happened, and there's a problem with each of them," one source close to the NTSB investigation says. "You run them to the end, and there are questions that logic can't answer. Just like the bulkhead theory. Sounds good, but if there was a crack great enough for instant decompression, why didn't the plane break up as it continued to fly? The challenge here is that you have a catastrophic failure that was contained somehow."

A couple of other Learjets, different models, have met similar fates. In 1983 a Lear traveling from Vienna to Hamburg overflew its destination and kept traveling on automatic pilot, chased by military jets from four countries. It crashed in the sea off Iceland and never was recovered. In 1990 a Learjet crashed in the mountains near Hermosillo, Mexico. The wreckage never was brought down from the hills for testing.

"You get some strange calls after something like this," Watkins says. "I got one call, a voice saying the Chinese government had shot the plane down with a laser because Payne Stewart did an imitation of a Chinese person a few weeks earlier that was reported in the press and got him in trouble. Another voice said that one of the passengers had shot and killed everybody and then committed suicide. Crazy stuff."

The charter business at Sunjet dropped by 66% in the two months after the crash. Watkins says he understands. He says that after a ValuJet crashed in the Everglades in May 1996, he would have stayed away from ValuJet. Watkins also says he would have gotten on that Lear 35 on Oct. 25 without a second thought. "And I'd have taken my children with me," he says.

Tracey Stewart has written a book with Ken Abraham, Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography, due out in June. It is being published by Broadman and Holman of Nashville, a religious press. She describes how Baker, her assistant, went to the First School in Orlando after the crash to collect Chelsea and Aaron and bring them home. The two women then told the children what had happened. Tracey notes that among the items recovered from the crash site were Payne's wedding ring, his SMU ring, the face of the Rolex watch he received at the first PGA tournament he won, the Scripture Promise books he had taken on the trip, and his WWJD bracelet.

Donna Stout still plans to pursue the dream of a mission in Haiti. She now lives in Oklahoma to be near her children. Debbie Ardan and Kate Borland each have four children to raise. Dixie Fraley just returned from a trip to England. Leader Enterprises still is in business, under the direction of D.J. Snell, a young associate. Lee Janzen says he still thinks he sees Stewart every day. He notices the way someone walks or smiles or laughs and is reminded of his friend. "He had the ability to make you smile," Janzen says. "That's what I remember most about him."

Hoffman says he is thinking about putting a memorial stone or some other marker where the crash occurred. He keeps the area locked up to keep out the curious. He never has brought the cows back to graze on the land, simply out of respect. The grass is higher there than it does in his other fields.

"I play a lot of golf," Hoffman says, "so I knew who Payne Stewart was. I love golf. If I could, I'd play golf every day. My brother, Blake, in fact, had been scheduled to have dinner with Payne Stewart in January at an event in Las Vegas. It's just one of the ironies. My family is filled with pilots, too. My dad flies. My brother flies. My brother-in-law is a pilot for United Parcel."

Hoffman says he thinks the crash has changed him. He is a young guy, 39 years old, fighting what he knows is a losing fight as an independent cattle rancher. The future will belong to the agricultural conglomerates. Hoffman is part of the last generation of his breed. He says he used to worry about that, worry about a lot of things. He does not do that now. "My father was diagnosed with cancer in the past year," he says. "Between that and the crash, I've done a lot of thinking. You get the idea that life is pretty precious. It can be taken away in an instant. I used to let a lot of little things bother me. I don't anymore." He says this as he drives across his property in his pickup truck. The truck bounces in holes and ruts, but it seems resilient.

It is twilight. Men are unloading large hay bales from three giant trucks. This will be feed for the cows for the next week. The sky runs forever over the flat land. "Let me show you something," Hoffman says on impulse. "Did you ever see a pheasant?"

He drives close to a line of low bushes. The noise of the truck startles the birds. Four or five pheasants burst from their hiding places. They are out of season for hunters now. They fly into the air, colorful and beautiful, wonderful, unmindful of what perils might await.

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