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Payne Stewart, 4 Others Killed After Plane Spins Out of Control

By Edward Walsh and William Claiborne

The Washington Post -- MINA, South Dakota

A Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart and four others streaked uncontrolled for thousands of miles across the heart of the country Monday, its occupants apparently unconscious or already dead, before it plunged nose first and crashed in a field near this north central South Dakota hamlet.

No one on the ground was hurt and there were no survivors aboard the aircraft, which came down in a marshy area about two miles southwest of here.

The cause of the uncontrolled flight and crash after the Learjet 35 apparently ran out of fuel were not known, but aviation experts speculated that the aircraft may have lost pressurization and that emergency backup systems failed as the plane’s autopilot kept it in the air. Loss of pressurization above 30,000 feet would cause occupants of the aircraft to lose consciousness from oxygen deficiency in one to two minutes, the experts said.

During some of its eerie, almost four-hour journey from Orlando to a swampy grassland in South Dakota, the Learjet was shadowed by Air Force and Air National Guard jet fighters, whose pilots reported that the aircraft’s windows were frosted over, suggesting that it had lost pressurization. The Air Force pilots also reported that the Learjet meandered from as low as 22,000 feet to as high as 51,000 feet, but never strayed from a northwest heading.

The military aircraft were not armed with air-to-air missiles, and Pentagon officials said they never considered shooting down the Learjet.

“The FAA said this thing was headed to a sparsely populated part of the country, so let it go,” a senior defense official said.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane left Orlando, Fla., where Stewart lived, at 9:19 a.m. Eastern time Monday and was bound for Dallas. Stewart, a two-time U.S. Open champion, was scheduled to play later this week in the Tour Championship in Houston, the PGA’s final tournament of the year.

The FAA said air traffic controllers lost radio contact with the plane at 9:44 a.m. just after they had cleared the twin engine jet to climb to 39,000 feet northwest of Gainesville, Fla. An FAA spokesman said air traffic controllers noted “significant changes in altitude” by the plane, but that the aircraft’s crew did not respond to repeated radio calls from the ground.