It was a typical day on October 25, 1999. Jon Hoffman was leading a group of hunters from Texas on an expedition near his home in South Dakota. They were almost finished with their hunt when one of the group members called out to say he had seen a plane fall out of the sky.
He was the only one who saw the plane, and there was no explosion or noise. However, two F-16 jets flew over them a few minutes later, and they knew something was strange. The men didn’t realize that the entire country had been glued to their screens, watching this mysterious plane all morning.
Florida – 9:19 AM
On the morning of October 25, 1999, PGA golfer Payne Stewart, his agents, and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect, boarded a charted Learjet 35 plane with two pilots for a two-day, five-flight trip. Before departure, the plane was filled with enough fuel for a four-hour and 45-minute flight.
The flight departed from Orlando International Airport at 9:19 a.m. and was headed toward Dallas. As the plane rose into the sky, the controller instructed the pilot to climb and maintain flight level at 39,000 feet. The pilot acknowledged the clearance, which was the last radio transmission from the plane.
The flight was standard, and it should have been a smooth trip, but something went wrong. About 15 minutes after takeoff, the controller tried to contact the Learjet, but the message went unanswered. The plane was now at 36,500 feet. The controller tried to contact the plane again after a few minutes.
The controller tried to contact the plane five more times, but there was no response. As it climbed to 39,000 feet, the air traffic controller contacted Colonel Olson, who happened to be in the air nearby. He was directed to intercept the Learjet and investigate why they were not responding.
Something Was Odd
When Colonel Olsen was 2,000 feet from the Learjet, he made two radio calls to the plane. Once again, there was no response. He started to make a visual inspection of the jet, finding no visible damage. The engines were running, and the red rotating anti-collision beacon was on.
The F-16 pilot couldn’t see into the passenger section because the windows were dark. As Colonel Olsen got closer to the cockpit, he saw something was wrong with the windshield. It looked as though condensation or ice had covered the inside of the window on the right side. He didn’t see any movement.
It Kept Rising
While the standard flight altitude is 39,000 feet, the Learjet kept rising. About three hours into the flight, two more F-16s from the Oklahoma Air National Guard took off to intercept the plane. The pilots could not see any movement in the cockpit, and the windshield was dark.
One of the F-16 pilots said that someone in the plane should have seen them. The F-16s had to land to refuel, leaving the unresponsive aircraft. It reached a maximum altitude of 48,900 feet. They didn’t know what happened on the plane, but more F-16s tried to intercept it.
They Kept Trying
After the two pilots left to refuel, two more F-16s from North Dakota tried to contact the Learjet. The previous F-16s from Oklahoma later joined them, and all four fighters got close to the Learjet. They reported that the cockpit window was completely iced over.
They could only stay in the air so long before needing to refuel. However, they stuck with the Learjet to ensure it wasn’t headed for a populated area. The Canadian Prime Minister authorized the Royal Canadian Air Force to shoot the Learjet down if it entered their airspace.
It Ran Out of Fuel
Almost four hours after departing from Orlando and more than a thousand miles off-course, the Learjet’s fuel reserves ran out above South Dakota, causing the plane to stop. As it happened, it took a nosedive towards the ground at high speed.
The fighter jets reported that the plane was descending and spiraling out of control. The F-16s requested emergency descent to follow the Learjet as it fell out of the sky. They knew it was going to crash, and it would hit the ground at nearly supersonic speed.
What Happened to Payne Stewart?
At approximately 12:13 p.m. in Mina, South Dakota, the Learjet crashed in a flat pasture on Hoffman’s cattle farm. The six people on board, including Stewart and the two pilots, died. The plane was ruined, and none of its components remained intact due to the speed at which it crashed.
Stewart had won the US Open at Pinehurst just weeks before the horrific crash. Hoffman, who owned the farm where the plane crashed, had just watched Stewart on TV a few months earlier while he sat with his father in the hospital. It was all so shocking to him.
Everyone Watched It Unfold
As the Learjet cruised towards disaster, word spread quickly that a PGA golf pro was on board. Panicked family and friends started calling other players who had been in Orlando until they found out Stewart was on the flight. Then, nothing else mattered.
Tee times were canceled, and travel plans were put on hold. Players and fans were glued to their screens as they watched the tragedy unfold. They all felt helpless as the news reports showed the F-16 jets and the inevitable crash. It left everyone in tears.
The Investigation Began
The bizarre and unexplainable events of that day lead to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The F-16s that investigated the plane while it was in the air reported that the window appeared to have frosted over, a sign of cabin depressurization.
The NTSB corroborated the hypothesis. It concluded that the probable cause of the accident was the incapacitation of the crew caused by the loss of cabin pressure. However, they didn’t know what prompted the pressure issue. It was truly bizarre and tragic.
The Plane Had Issues
In the months before the crash, the Learjet reported several instances of maintenance work related to the cabin pressure. The NTSB was unable to establish if that was from a common or persistent problem. It seemed that this wasn’t the first time the plane had issues.
Replacements and repairs were documented, but there weren’t pilot reports that prompted the frequent maintenance work. The NTSB’s investigation criticized Sunjet Aviation, Learjet’s operating company, because the lack of pilot reports made it harder to identify and resolve the problem.
How Did Payne Stewart Die?
The NTSB concluded that Payne and everyone else on board had died from hypoxia shortly after the plane took off. They were probably dead before the plane even got out of the Florida skies. Hypoxia is when the body or parts of the body are deprived of oxygen at the tissue level.
Following the depressurization, those aboard didn’t receive enough oxygen in time to avoid hypoxia. After ten minutes without oxygen, the brain dies. Unfortunately, the plane’s oxygen masks didn’t help those on board, and they all perished.
The Plane Kept Going
If everyone on board was dead shortly after takeoff, then how did the plane get to South Dakota? The autopilot had been engaged, which kept the Learjet airborne. The engines powered down when the plane eventually ran out of fuel, but the autopilot was still on.
The autopilot would have attempted to maintain altitude, causing the plane’s airspeed to drop until it hit a stall speed. At that point, the stick shaker, a device in the cockpit that noisily vibrates to alert the pilot that the autopilot is off, would have gotten the pilot’s attention.
The Planned Trip
When Stewart boarded the plane with his associates, he was headed for Houston for the 1999 Tour Championship. He planned to stop in Dallas first for discussions with the athletic department of his alma mater, Southern Methodist University. He wanted to build a home for the school’s golf program.
In the aftermath of the crash, Stewart was memorialized at the Tour Championship with a bagpipe playing at the first hole. Hoffman also created a memorial at the crash site with the permission of Stewart’s wife and the other families of the people on the plane.
The Pilots Were Qualified
The two crew members on board were 42-year-old captain Michael Kling and 27-year-old Stephanie Bellegarrigue. Kling had been a pilot for years and served in the Air Force. He was also an instructor at the Maine Air National Guard. He had no idea there would be a mechanical issue.
Meanwhile, Bellegarrigue served as the first officer on the doomed flight. She was newer to flying, but she had over 1,700 hours of flight time under her belt. Bellegarrigue had worked with Sunjet Aviation for 251 of those hours, but there was nothing she could have done.
Born to Be a Golfer
William Payne Stewart was born in Springfield, Missouri, in January 1957. Two years prior, his father, Bill, played in the US Open in San Francisco. It was almost guaranteed that Stewart would follow in his father’s footsteps.
After playing collegiate golf at Southern Methodist, he went pro in 1979. He failed to get a PGA Tour card, so he moved across the ocean to play on the Asia Gold Circuit. It proved to be a good move because he won the Indian Open and Indonesian Open in 1981.
He Met His Wife
While playing in Kuala Lumpur, Stewart met an Australian girl named Tracey Ferguson. They quickly hit it off, and after a storybook romance, they got married in November 1981. They were inseparable, and she traveled around the world with him.
Ferguson must have been his good luck charm because he secured a PGA Tour shortly after they got married. In July of that year, he won his first title at the Quad Cities Open. It was a special win because it was the only time his dad got to see him on tour.
He Beat the Odds
Stewart won several majors during his career. In 1991, the US Open at Hazeltine was overshadowed by the tragic death of a spectator who was struck by lightning. However, Stewart won the title with the highest winning score since 1927. The odds of him winning were low.
He had to take ten weeks off before the tournament due to a neck injury. Stewart showed up wearing a back brace, but he was up for the challenge. It brought out the competitor in him, and he never gave up. Stewart was anything but a quitter.
He Dared to Be Different
Stewart was never one to blend into the crowd. He dressed a little more boldly than the other players, which he started doing during his first PGA Tour. When all the players were lined up, he realized they all looked the same.
At that moment, he remembered something his father said, “The easiest way to stand out in a crowd is to dress differently.” His flamboyant outfits drew some laughs from the crowd, but Stewart had the last laugh. His outfits captured the eyes of the NFL.
The NFL offered Stewart a multi-million-dollar contract to wear his trademark outfits in the colors of whichever football team played closest to the tournament venue. Some weeks he would wear the colors of the Miami Dolphins, and other times, he would wear the Detroit Lions’ colors.
The bold outfits made Stewart one of the most famous golfers. He was known by everyone, including Michael Jackson. When he put his Florida mansion on the market, Jackson came to look at it, and Jackson called him “the golfer guy with the funny clothes.”
Fame and Fortune Weren’t Important
While fame and fortune gave Stewart a great life, the most important things to him were his friends and family. Everyone who knew him said Stewart always tried to make everyone smile. If someone in the group was moping, he would poke fun at them until they smiled.
Stewart was a fun-loving guy who always tried to have a good time. His friends said he made everyone laugh, and he always helped out a friend in need. Even if he lost a tournament, Stewart was happy to have his family’s support.
He Went Out a Champion
When Stewart boarded the Learjet in 1999, he was the reigning US Open champion and had won three majors and 11 PGA Tour titles. He went out a champion with $12.5 million in career prize earnings. Stewart was at the top of his game.
He was the third-highest earner in the history of the tour and spent a large portion of his career in the top ten list of golfers. Besides his impeccable career, the 42-year-old was also happily married and a father of two. He had so much more life to live.
On the morning after the crash, Hoffman drove to his farm and counted the news trucks lined up next to the crash site. They stayed for about a week, and when they left, the clean-up began. Personal items such as wedding rings and broken golf clubs were recovered.
They were returned to the victims’ families. Among the rubble was a flattened harmonica. Stewart rarely left home without one, and it was a sad reminder of his cut-off life. Due to the speed of the impact, not much else was found intact.
He Made a Memorial
A large boulder was excavated from the impact zone during the clean-up. As the Learjet fell from the sky, it reached almost supersonic speed and cracked the rock in half upon impact. The larger half of the rock was turned into a memorial to honor those lost.
With the permission of the victims’ families, Hoffman had the boulder cleaned and engraved with the names of those who died. The victims’ wives also picked a Bible verse to display on the rock. Hoffman paved over the impact site and placed the memorial marker on it.
People Paid Their Respects
The area was fenced off to keep Hoffman’s cattle away. In the 23 years since the accident, Hoffman said members of the victims’ families have traveled to the memorial. Golf fans also come to pay their respects. Hoffman often escorts people to the site.
People leave flowers on the anniversary, and a man once left a flat hat like the one Stewart wore. It shows how loved he was by people who didn’t even watch golf. Hoffman said, “You know, a lot of Payne Stewart is there, in that ground. He’s part of it now.”
Stewart Wasn’t the Only One
Bruce Borland, Robert Fraley, and Van Ardan were also on the Learjet that day. Borland was a golf course designer, a passion he formed at an early age. He built his first putting green in his parents’ garden and made a career out of it.
In 1989, Borland moved to Chicago to open up a design firm. He then joined Jack Nicklaus’ Golden Bear International, a golf course design company. Borland was only 40 when he died, and his legacy lived on through his wife and four children.
He Managed the Top Sports Stars
Robert Fraley was one of Stewart’s managers. The former University of Alabama quarterback was the CEO of Leader Enterprises Inc, where he managed several professional coaches and athletes. Fraley started his career as a taxation lawyer but made a career change to work in sports.
Farley married his college sweetheart, Dixie, during her junior year of college. The two were set up on a blind date and instantly hit it off. Although they never had children, the couple became the godparents of Stewart’s children. After the crash, Dixie wanted justice.
He Also Left Behind a Wife
Along with Fraley, Van Ardan managed Stewart. He was only 45 at the time of the crash and left behind his beloved wife. She was a deeply religious woman and recalled how her late husband once said, “All of this could soon be gone, so let’s be thankful today.”
Ardan’s words almost foreshadowed his untimely death. He started his career as a stockbroker but joined Leader Enterprises in 1989. Ardan met his wife in high school, and they had four children together, who were still young when he passed away.
They Sued Learjet
In 2005, the Stewart and Fraley’s families sued Learjet. They claimed that a cracked adapter caused an outflow valve to pull away from the plane’s frame, resulting in a decompression and the escape of cabin air as the plane took off and climbed in altitude.
The family sought $200 million for the loss. Dixie Fraley shared memories of her life with her husband in front of the court to convey the loss she experienced. The all-female jury heard highly technical theories about the plane’s failure and emotional testimonies from friends and family members.
Unfortunately, the jury ruled that Learjet was not responsible for the crash. They listened to more than a month of testimonies and found Learjet’s argument more convincing. The company said that the plane lost pressure in another way and the damaged valve was caused by the crash.
Learjet also argued that the plane was poorly maintained by Sunjet, which was closed down by the FBI. There were never any criminal charges against Sunjet or its former chief pilot, Jim Watkins. Stewart and Fraley’s families never got justice.
Coping Wasn’t Easy
In the years after the crash, the victims’ families learned that coping with the losses wasn’t easy. The grief they felt never fully went away. Tracey Stewart said, “It’s been hard for our family to adjust over the past five years without Payne in our lives.”
Tracey wonders why her husband and the five other people had to die that day. She shared, “All of them had so much to contribute for the good of the world.” Tracey thinks about her late husband every day, and she rarely travels as she did when they first got married.
His Son Honored His Legacy
When Stewart died, his son Aaron was only ten. He had little interest in golf when his father was alive. However, he took up the sport a year later. Aaron was on his high school’s golf team, and now he is a part of the sport in ways he never imagined.
Aaron attended his father’s alma mater, intending to take his golf career to the next level. Instead, he went a different route. Diamond Resorts eventually hired Aaron as part of their sports marketing team. In 2019, he was appointed tournament director for the Tournament of Champions.
The hardest part for those affected wasn’t the initial day or the support that followed; it was returning to their daily lives and trying to find normalcy. Ardan’s daughter, Annelie, felt that moving on was a betrayal to her father. She said her brother ignored the pain.
It took Ardan’s son almost five years to start dealing with his father’s loss. He tried to be tough because he thought that was what he was supposed to do. Now he is happy to talk about his father’s memory and their time together.
It Was Too Hard
The grieving process was different for everyone. Captain Michael Kling’s wife, Donna, was haunted by the reminders of her late husband. She had been married to him for 14 years, and they moved to Florida a few years before the crash, but Donna moved after the ordeal.
It was too painful for her to be surrounded by the memories they made in their home. Donna was overwhelmed by the reminders of Kling. Even years after the crash, she still struggles to talk about him. It never got easier for her.
They Missed Milestones
Five years later, the Ardan family prepared for a wedding. Ardan’s oldest daughter, Ashley, got married, and she had a letter from her late father in which he imagined his daughter’s wedding day. She always thought Ardan would walk her down the aisle, but she knew he was there in spirit.
The victim’s families know that their lost loved ones are never far away. They find solace in knowing that those who died always watch over them, especially in those milestone moments. Dixie Fraley said, “Life goes on, but it is different. And every day you choose to live it.”