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"We are presenting this article from USA TODAY as a comparison of how the FAA reacted in this case (which is mandated under FAA rules and regulations) as opposed to how they didnŐt react on 9-11.

We have added emphasis in RED type.

The following article is being shown as fair use as research material under the copyright act."
- FTW


10/26/99- Updated 02:12 PM ET

Final flight

Minute by minute, Stewart's jet flew beyond help


By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

The last communication was routine. As it climbed over Gainesville, Fla., air traffic controllers cleared the Dallas-bound Learjet to a cruise altitude of 39,000 feet. At 9:44 a.m. ET, 25 minutes after takeoff from Orlando, one of the pilots confirmed the controllers' radio call.

But then, within minutes, a mysterious silence gripped the cockpit. Soaring at altitudes that could have reached 51,000 feet, its cockpit windows apparently frosted with ice, the jet continued for nearly four hours.

The high-performance twin-engine jet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart, at least two associates and two pilots crossed half the continent, apparently guided by autopilot, before plummeting nose-down into a field near Mina, S.D.

Millions were transfixed by TV and radio broadcasts after news of the uncontrolled flight broke. Along the way, the Learjet was shadowed by military fighter jets, whose pilots attempted to peer inside and learn what was happening. Air traffic controllers cleared all other planes from the Learjet's path.

Investigators still had not examined the wreckage late Monday, but aviation experts and government officials say that initial evidence suggests that the pilots could have been overcome by lack of oxygen after the cabin somehow lost pressure. The air is so thin and cold at 40,000 feet and above that people lose consciousness within seconds, they say.

If air suddenly escapes from a pressurized aircraft, which is known as "explosive decompression," it creates even more problems for a crew. "There is a loud bang," David Heekin, an airline captain and aviation writer, says. "Dust flies up, and all the moisture in the air immediately vaporizes."

The rapid change in pressure and falling temperatures create a thick fog that can obscure people's hands in front of their faces. It also leaves frost on an aircraft's windshield.

But this scenario of the Learjet's fate raises many conflicting questions.

Pilots are tested and retested on their ability to apply oxygen masks quickly and descend if pressure is lost. "There is no mistaking an explosive decompression," Heekin says. "The reaction to that is as instinctive as pulling your hand away from a hot stove."

"We're trained to do this," says Charlie Priester, a Learjet pilot and owner of Priester Aviation in Wheeling, Ill.

Oxygen masks also automatically pop out in the passenger compartment of a Learjet after a cabin depressurizes.

Another possible scenario is that the jet gradually lost pressure. Lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, can disorient pilots and give them a false sense of well-being that can gradually incapacitate them.

Safety board begins its investigation


But the Learjet 35, which is built to fly up to 45,000 feet, is equipped with a variety of safety devices to prevent this from occurring. If the cabin pressure becomes too thin, a warning horn sounds to alert pilots. If the pilots forget to turn on the cabin pressurization system, it automatically adds enough air so that the crew can safely fly the jet.

Aviation safety experts say smoke or fumes also could have incapacitated the crew. But such events are rare, especially without some type of emergency radio call.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived Monday evening in South Dakota to begin the investigation. One of their first tasks will be to try to locate the "black box" containing the cockpit voice recorder, which is required on this type of jet. It might not be much help: Voice recorders typically record in 30-minute loops, recording over previous conversations as they go. A flight data recorder, which records information such as speed and altitude, is not required on the Learjet.

The ghostly flight across the country started early Monday at Orlando Sanford Airport, a small, general aviation field about 20 miles north of Orlando.

Operated by Sunjet Aviation, the jet flew the short distance to Orlando International Airport. There, it picked up Stewart, 42, and two business associates, Robert Fraley, 46, and Van Ardan, age unknown. Piloting the jet were Michael Kling, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27. Golfer Jack Nicklaus said he feared that one of his golf course designers, Bruce Borland, 40, was on the jet too. He said Borland had planned to join Stewart on the flight because he wanted to design a course with Stewart under the Nicklaus Design banner.

The NTSB said Monday night that it could not confirm the total dead.

The passengers boarded the plane at Aircraft Service International Group, a fueling and handling center. Stewart used the facility frequently, boarding about a dozen flights there a month. His picture, in trademark cap and knickers, was on the wall with a cast of other celebrities and athletes until company headquarters called and told employees to take it down. A large banner still hung in the center's lobby Monday night, congratulating Stewart on this year's U.S. Open victory.

The jet took off at 9:19 a.m., bound for Dallas Love Field. Stewart was to play in a tournament this week near Dallas.

For the next 25 minutes, the twin-engine jet climbed normally. Though commercial jets normally fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet, corporate jets such as the Learjet often fly above them, and Stewart's jet was headed toward its normal cruise range.

But after 9:44, the crew did not respond to radio calls. Within 24 minutes, the Federal Aviation Administration had asked the Air Force for help in tracking the jet.

Two F-15 fighter jets from Tyndall Air Force Base, which already were aloft on a routine training mission, were asked to check the jet. An F-16 and an A-10 from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida then were diverted to follow and "escort" the jet.

By now, it was nearing 11 a.m. and the Learjet "jumped to 44,000 feet," according to the Defense Department. Although the jet was flying on a straight course, its altitude was fluctuating. Sources within the FAA say it was flying as high as 48,000 feet and dropping to 45,000. But military officials say it flew as low as 22,000 feet and climbed to 51,000 feet, constantly climbing and dipping.

As the military jets ran low on fuel, others took their place.

'There was nothing there, just pieces'


Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton could only watch helplessly as he flew alongside the Learjet over Memphis.

The 32-year-old Air Force pilot from Newport News, Va., was flying his F-16 Fighting Falcon, nicknamed "Bullet One," on a training mission over the Gulf of Mexico when he was sent to try to find out what was wrong with the jet.

"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. That's very disheartening."

Hamilton said the Learjet's windows were fogged, and he could not see inside.

About 1 p.m. ET, the story broke on CNN. Stewart's wife, Tracey, an Australian native, tried to reach her husband on his cellular phone while she followed the drama on television, her brother said.

"She was trying to ring him on his mobile and couldn't raise him. It's just really bad for my sister to be watching it on CNN, knowing that it was her husband on board," Mike Ferguson, a professional golfer, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

About the same time, another F-16 pilot pulled alongside the Learjet and reported that its windows appeared to be fogged with ice. Fourteen minutes later, radar showed that the jet began spiraling down. Radar contact was lost at 1:20 p.m.

At his home in Mina, S.D., Ken Dunn heard the news of the jet's uncontrolled flight on the radio and stepped onto his front porch, where he saw a Learjet flying high overhead, flanked by two F-16s.

"The one in trouble started flip-flopping, and then it just came straight down," he said. "I knew there was nothing there, just pieces."

Dunn jumped into his Jeep and drove 2 miles to a pasture owned by rancher John Hoffman, where he found "a hole 10 feet deep, 25 feet in diameter. Pieces of aircraft lying around. Pieces of human bodies lying around. And there were no pieces of body bigger than a softball."

He called 911 and told the operator no ambulance would be needed.

At her Mina farmhouse, Nina Vilhauer saw two trails of smoke, one from an F-16 and the other from the Learjet. A moment later, she saw the Learjet spinning down. The plunge took about 10 seconds, she said. She described the next sound as "a sonic boom."

Contributing: Jack Kelley, Steve Komarow and Andrea Stone in Washington; Blake Morrison and Traci Watson in Mina, S.D.; and Deborah Sharp in Orlando, Fla.

© Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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Truth And Lies About 9-11