This story originally ran in the Oct. 30, 1999 issue of Golfweek.
The unlikely circumstances of the plane crash that killed U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and five others Oct. 25 are as difficult to fathom as the idea that one of golf’s brightest stars is gone.
A twin-engine Lear 35 jet carrying Stewart, three business associates and two pilots took off from Orlando (Fla.) International Airport at 9:09 a.m. EDT Monday morning headed for Dallas’ Love Field. The last communication between the flight crew and air traffic controllers came about 35 minutes later, when the plane was over Gainesville, Fla. From there, the aircraft flew a ghostly journey halfway across the country, its windows iced over and its occupants apparently incapacitated, before nosediving into a grassy field near Mina, S.D., at about 1:20 p.m. EDT.
The chartered jet may have suddenly lost cabin pressure soon after taking off, government officials said. Fighter jets were sent after the plane and followed it for much of its flight but were unable to help. The pilots drew close and noticed no structural damage but were unable to see into the Learjet because its windows were frosted over, indicating the temperature inside was well below freezing.
Apparently set on autopilot, the plane cruised at a stable 45,000 feet or so, flying 1,400 miles straight up the nation’s midsection, across half a dozen states, before it presumably ran out of fuel about four hours after it took off.
Stewart, 42, lived in Orlando and last week had competed in the PGA Tour’s National Car Rental Classic at Walt Disney World Resort, missing the 36-hole cut. He was slated to compete in this week’s Tour Championship in Houston but had scheduled a meeting for Monday in Dallas with developer Jeff Blackard to discuss a tract of land Blackard owns in suburban Frisco, Texas, Blackard said. Blackard wanted Stewart to design a golf course the developer hoped would one day become the home course of Southern Methodist University, Stewart’s alma mater.
“I feel somewhat responsible,” Blackard told a Dallas TV station. “I orchestrated the whole thing.”
National news outlets picked up the drama of the runaway plane at mid-morning. Stewart’s wife, Tracey, unsuccessfully tried to reach her husband via cellular phone as she watched the story unfold from their Orlando home, her brother said.
“She was trying to ring him up on his mobile and couldn’t raise him. It’s just really bad for my sister to be watching on CNN, knowing that it was her husband on board,” Mike Ferguson told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. (Tracey Stewart, whose maiden name is Ferguson, is an Australian native.)
Not long after the crash, Stewart’s children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10, were called from their classes at The First Academy in Orlando. They were told of their father’s death at home.
The other victims:
Robert Fraley: 46, CEO of Orlando-based Leader Enterprises Inc., which represented Stewart. In addition to Stewart and other touring pros including Paul Azinger, the agency represents NFL coaches Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Dan Reeves and former coach Joe Gibbs; Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy; and New York Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser. Fraley played quarterback for the University of Alabama under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and was nicknamed the “Winchester Rifle” as a high-school quarterback. He enrolled at Alabama in 1971. Fraley worked as an attorney in the Orlando area before moving into athlete representation in the early 1980s. He is survived by his wife, Dixie.
Van Ardan: 45, president of Leader Enterprises Inc. A Washington, D.C., area native, he had worked at Leader since 1992. He started out with motor sports and most recently concentrated on golf representation at Leader. He was employed as an engineer and stockbroker before getting into sports management. He is survived by his wife, Debra, and four children.
Bruce Borland: 40, a senior design associate with Jack Nicklaus Design of North Palm Beach, Fla. He joined Nicklaus Design in 1990 and was design associate on 10 Jack Nicklaus Signature courses. He was a 1981 graduate of the University of Illinois with a degree in landscape architecture and was a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He is survived by his wife, Kate, and four children. According to a statement from Jack Nicklaus, Borland had approached Nicklaus recently to ask permission to design a course with Stewart under the Nicklaus Design banner.
Michael Kling: 43, the pilot and a former Air Force pilot.
Stephanie Bellegarrigue: 27, the co-pilot.