"We are presenting this article from
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
Minute by minute, Stewart's
jet flew beyond help
The last communication was routine. As it climbed
Fla., air traffic
controllers cleared the Dallas-bound
Learjet to a cruise altitude
of 39,000 feet. At , 25 minutes after takeoff from
Orlando, one of
the pilots confirmed the controllers' radio call.
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
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
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
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
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
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
But this scenario of the
Learjet's fate raises many
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
"We're trained to do this," says Charlie
Priester, a Learjet pilot and
owner of Priester Aviation in
masks also automatically pop out in the passenger compartment
of a Learjet after a cabin
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
Safety board begins its investigation
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.
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.
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
flight across the country started early Monday at Orlando
Sanford Airport, a small, general aviation field about 20
miles north of Orlando.
Sunjet Aviation, the
jet flew the short distance
to OrlandoInternationalAirport. 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.
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
The jet took
off at ,
bound for Dallas Love Field. Stewart was to play in a
tournament this week near
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 , 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
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
were diverted to follow and "escort" the
By now, it was
"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
As the military
jets ran low on fuel, others
took their place.
'There was nothing there,
Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton could only
watch helplessly as he flew alongside 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
"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.
said the Learjet's windows
were fogged, and he could not see inside.
, 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
"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.
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
At his home in
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,
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
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
Blake Morrison and Traci Watson in Mina, S.D.; and Deborah
Sharp in Orlando,