Golf Digest editors picks

10-25-99

Ten years after a plane carrying Payne Stewart and five others crashed in a Mina, S.D., field, the memory of the day lingers in the golf community

October 5, 2009

It was a cool morning in late October with a few puffy, white clouds in the sky. It would reach the middle-70s later in the afternoon. A light breeze made it a perfect day for golf, and flying. Michael Kling, a captain for Sunjet Aviation, came to work at 6:30 a.m. His first officer, Stephanie Bellegarrigue, arrived 15 minutes later. They inspected and fueled Learjet N47BA, loaded a cooler with ice and soft drinks on board and left Sanford, Fla., for Orlando International Airport at 7:54 a.m. to pick up passengers.

Payne Stewart and his wife, Tracey, were up early that morning, too. She had an appointment with a chiropractor and a meeting scheduled at the new house they were building in Isleworth. As he often did, Payne made pancakes for Tracey and his children, Chelsea and Aaron, before the three of them left for school around 7:30 a.m. The reigning U.S. Open champion and a member of the stunningly victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team, Stewart had angered some of his friends because he had backed out of a commitment to play in a fundraising event that day hosted by Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill. Instead, he was going to look at a potential golf course site near Dallas before going on to Houston for the Tour Championship.

Van Ardan, one of Payne's agents, picked him up just after 8 o'clock to go to the airport. The Learjet arrived about 8:10. Robert Fraley, another of Payne's agents, was dropped off at the airport by his wife, Dixie. Bruce Borland was a last-minute addition to the group. An architect in Jack Nicklaus' golf course design firm, Borland was anxious to work with Stewart on the new project and traveled up from North Palm Beach to join him on the trip.

The Learjet, with its two pilots and four passengers, took off from Orlando International at 9:19 a.m. After a series of altitude clearances, at 9:26 a.m. the pilot was instructed to change radio frequency and contact a Jacksonville controller who cleared the aircraft to climb to, and maintain, flight level 390 to Dallas. The response, "three nine zero bravo alpha," are the last known words to have been spoken on the airplane.

From that moment until 12:12 p.m. CDT, N47BA was first intercepted by an F-16 from the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, then followed by two Oklahoma Air National Guard F-16s, joined by a pair of North Dakota Air National Guard F-16s. All reported the windows fogged or frozen and no sign of life. For nearly four hours, first in great confusion and then heartrending resignation, the saga played out on CNN as the Learjet porpoised through the air. Stuck in a climb, it bumped up against its maximum altitude of 48,900 feet, descended to a level where its engines functioned more efficiently and then climbed back to its apex over and over until it ran out of fuel.

For golf people, Oct. 25, 1999 is a day the game stood still, a day they will never forget.

Jon Brendle, PGA Tour rules official: I lived next door to him. I was in the house. The Disney had just ended and Robinson Holloway [a researcher for ABC] was staying with me. Friday and Saturday night Payne came over to my house when I came home from work. Friday night he missed the cut. Saturday night there was a fight on and he and his father-in-law came over to my house and we watched the fight on HBO. Payne and I used to like to go to the House of Blues together. We kind of got kitchen passes together a lot. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a young guy out of Louisiana we knew very well, was playing. So, I called him and said, 'Kenny Wayne's playing, do you want to go?' I'm on the phone talking to him. I could see him through the window. He goes, 'Jonny, I can't. I've got an early flight tomorrow.' So, I had a pretty good night. I'd just worked four straight weeks. A little extra drinking and everything, so I slept in a little bit. Robinson knocked on the door. She says, 'Jon, Jon, there's something wrong with Payne's plane.' I jumped up, put on shorts and a T-shirt and ran next door to the house. Tracey was talking to the airport verifying the tail numbers. She got off the phone and said, 'Jonny, how do you know?' I went, 'Tracey, it's on the news.'

Jim Nantz, CBS announcer: I was at Dunville's in Westport, Conn., having lunch with someone and the waiter came over and said, 'Man, that's a sad story about that golfer. The airplane's flying around, and they can't contact them or anything.' I excused myself, went over behind the bar, saw CNN and they were tracking it. I went back to the table and canceled my lunch order and by the time I made the one-mile drive to the side of the river I live on, CBS was calling the house. They needed me to come in to do something for the evening news. But first they wanted to know if I had any contacts. Could I confirm it was Tiger Woods on that plane? They had a mole at ABC News and somebody from CBS News picked up that ABC was whispering behind the scenes that Tiger was on the plane. I made some calls to the right people, and I could confirm that Tiger was not on the plane. Of course, within another hour, we found out it was Payne. I've never been back [to Dunville's] because it hurts too much. Every time I drive by it, I look at it and think of Payne.

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