The pheasant hunters were still working the first of Jon
Hoffman's fields in the early afternoon of Oct. 25, 1999. There
were maybe 17 hunters in all, certainly fewer than the South
Dakota Fish and Game Department maximum of 20. The visitors, who
had paid for the right to hunt, mostly were from Texas, familiar
customers who returned each year for a week's adventure. The
locals, Jon and his brother Blake and a couple of their friends,
provided local knowledge and hunting expertise.
The day was warm for the season, 65[degrees], no clouds in the
sky. The field had been planted with corn, the crop already
harvested and stored for the winter to help feed the beef cattle
that Hoffman raises. The men crunched through the cornstalks and
husks, spread out in a line, noisy, sometimes shouting or
whistling to flush the birds. When the birds flew into the air,
maybe 10 or 15 feet high, the men put their shotguns to their
shoulders and fired.
Tom Kessler, the owner of a supermarket in Aberdeen, the third
largest city in the state, 12 miles away, walked at the far end
of the line. His major contribution to the hunt was his dog,
Cocoa, a chocolate Labrador retriever, who ran around the field,
further scaring the birds, then rushed to bring back the prey
once it was blasted from the air. The men put the dead birds in
pouches on their hunting vests.
Kessler's job was to watch his dog and to watch the men, some of
them not very experienced with guns. He also had to watch for
birds that might be on the verge of escaping to the next field.
He was the last link in the hunt. He watched for trouble, for
the unexpected, but he had no idea how unexpected the unexpected
The airplane crashed in front of him.
What was that? Kessler asked himself. Everything happened fast,
too fast, and there was no noise. That was the strangest part,
the lack of noise. He looked from a corner of his eye at first,
then took a full what-the-heck-is-that gawk and saw the large
silhouette of a jet plane headed directly toward the ground. The
distance to the plane from where he stood was hard to judge. A
mile? Two miles? Three? He couldn't even be sure of the size of
the plane. He thought maybe it was a large airliner. He was
startled. Shouldn't there be some kind of sound? The plane
almost seemed an apparition. There was no roar of engines as it
headed toward the ground. There was no explosion. The cornfield
blocked Kessler's view of the final result. Did I really see
what I think I saw? he wondered.
He looked at the other men. They still were involved in the
hunt. Wouldn't one of them, at least one, have been looking in
the same direction? Why wasn't anyone else shouting and
pointing? How could Kessler be the only one who had noticed an
event so cataclysmic? He hesitated even to speak.
"Hey," he finally said, "I think I just saw a plane crash out
there in the fields. Didn't any of you guys see it? It was right
At that moment four F-16 fighter jets dived from the sky, one
after another. There was a lot of noise. The jets dived again,
coming close to where Kessler had seen the plane disappear. The
jets pulled up, turned around and came back. "Maybe you saw one
of those military jets in a dive," Jon Hoffman said. "They're
probably just doing maneuvers."
"No," Kessler said, "I think I saw a plane go down."
The men walked toward a railroad grade in the middle of the
property, from where they could get a better look. Before they
reached the grade, though, the sound of sirens confirmed what
Kessler had seen. Emergency vehicles were on the move. Something
had happened for sure. Kessler called his store on his cell
phone for information. He repeated what he heard to the other
hunters. "It was a crash," Kessler reported. "Do you know Payne
Stewart, the golfer? He was on the plane."
The men climbed to the top of the grade and stared at the
activity in the distance. They joined the rest of America,
watching the sad saga of a famous man and four other men and a
woman and a plane, a tragedy and a mystery played out in front
of a nation's eyes. The pheasant hunters were just a little
later to the news than everybody else.
The story had begun more than six hours earlier, more than 1,400
miles to the south. The weather was also good in Orlando, low of
53[degrees], high of 78[degrees], sunny, one of those Florida
days that goes home as the background in a vacation jumbo print.
Visibility was perfect, more than 10 miles.
Pilot Michael Kling and his copilot, Stephanie Bellegarrigue,
arrived separately at the Sunjet Aviation terminal at
Orlando-Sanford Airport to fly a group of people from Leader
Enterprises, an Orlando sports agency, to Dallas. The group
would be waiting at Orlando International Airport, 30 miles to
the north. The pilots would pick up their plane, fly the short
distance from airport to airport and depart from Orlando
International sometime close to 9 a.m.
There was always a chance that someone famous would be aboard a
flight for Leader, whose client list included former NFL coaches
Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, Chicago White Sox star Frank Thomas
and golfer Paul Azinger, but no one at Sunjet knew that Stewart
was part of this day's group. "It was no big deal to be carrying
a celebrity," James Watkins, president of Sunjet, says. "We'd
carried Matt Damon, Bob Dole, James Brown, Jackson Browne,
Crosby, Stills and Nash. Bill Elliot, Rusty Wallace from NASCAR.
A bunch of people. We'd worked with Leader in the past. We'd
carried Payne Stewart a couple of times."
Sunjet, in business since 1992, is a family operation. Watkins's
brother, Paul, and their father, Jim, are Sunjet pilots. James's
son and a cousin also work for the company. Renovations
completed only two months before the Leader assignment had made
Sunjet's terminal and its hangar next door as modern as any
general aviation facility in the country. Sunjet mechanics
serviced various private aircraft from the area. An on-site
academy trained private pilots for certification. NASCAR drivers
Mark Martin and Jeff Burton had graduated from courses at the
At the time the company owned 10 planes, ranging from a Cessna
421 to a Lear 60. The most popular charter rentals were four
Lear 35s, high-altitude planes that carried a maximum of eight
passengers and could fly at heights of 49,000 feet at speeds of
more than 440 knots. The plane assigned to this trip was a
23-year-old Lear 35, partly owned by Stewart, with tail number
N47BA. It had been flown recently to St. Augustine, Fla., and
Wheeling, W.Va. Paul Watkins had piloted the West Virginia
flight. "Normally he would have taken this flight to Dallas,
too," James Watkins says. "He did most of the flights for Leader
because he was friends with one of its executives. This time,
though, he already was in Texas. He was getting a rating for
another airplane. He wasn't around."
Kling, a 42-year-old retired Air Force major with more than
4,000 hours logged in jet aircraft, was called from a list of
available pilots. He was known as a meticulous man who did
everything by the book. He would arrive earlier than any other
Sunjet pilot, inspect the aircraft longer. He was "almost prissy
in his approach, wanting everything done exactly right," James
Watkins says. The other pilots would smile at Kling's
In 1985, flying for the Air Force at Tinker Field in Oklahoma
City, Kling had met and married Donna Stout. They were religious
people, evangelical Christians. As members of the same church
they had gotten to know each other at weekly prayer meetings.
She had three children from an earlier marriage. He asked her to
marry him before even taking her out on a date. He raised her
children as if they were his own.
"How many people get married without ever going out on a date?"
Stout asks. "Our first date was our honeymoon."
Their shared goal was to establish a Christian ministry in Third
World countries. Kling was a part-time preacher and a church
singer. He hoped someday to buy his own plane and fly from
country to country, delivering food to the needy and spreading
the gospel. With the children grown and living separate lives,
Kling and Stout recently had sold their house and furniture to
be ready to move toward their goal. He had a second business
selling nutritional supplements to earn extra money. The couple
planned to preach first in Haiti. "We'd moved to Orlando for
this next step," Stout says. "Mike already had been to Haiti a
few times. We were ready to go."
Bellegarrigue, the copilot, 27 years old, was known as a free
spirit. She was bright and lively. Watkins found repeat clients
asking, "Hey, can we have Stephanie again?" Born in El Salvador,
raised mostly in Winter Haven, Fla., she had gone to Ohio State
and walked on as a synchronized swimmer. At 16 she'd won a
silver medal in the sport for El Salvador in the Central
A friend of Bellegarrigue's at Ohio State was a pilot and took
her flying one day. Bellegarrigue fell in love with the view,
the perspective from the sky, the absence of boundaries. This
was a picture from her heart. She eventually left Ohio State to
get a degree in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle University
in Daytona Beach. Bellegarrigue owned a four-seat Cessna for a
while in Winter Haven, giving flying lessons and working
charters. Then she joined Sunjet rather than a commercial
carrier to avoid any semblance of a nine-to-five schedule. She
wanted the freedom to follow her interests.
"My sister didn't even have cable television," Stephanie's
brother, Bobby, a dental student at Florida, says. "Her idea was
to do the things that were shown on television rather than watch
someone else do them. She always was on the move. She had a lot
of energy. She'd say, 'Let's fly to the Bahamas,' and just do it."
She had spent the weekend at Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach with
friend and fellow pilot Helena Reidemar, talking, going to a
party, then coming home on Sunday so she would be ready for her
flight on Monday. Kling had spent the weekend around the house
he already had sold. He mowed the lawn. He went to church. On
Sunday night he went to bed after a visit to a Chuck E. Cheese's
pizza parlor and a game of Monopoly with two of Stout's
grandchildren. "He woke up early to go to the airport," Stout
says. "He said goodbye, and I said, 'Be blessed.' I had been up
late the night before, so I turned over and went back to sleep."
She awakened again at 9:30 with a nervous feeling. She wasn't
sure why. Her husband dominated her thoughts. He was expected to
be gone for two or three days on this trip, and she missed him.
She knew that he had work to do. She began to pray to accept his
absence. She prayed for a while. "I felt in my heart I was
supposed to release Mike, to let him fulfill everything he was
supposed to be," she says. "I prayed for that. I can't explain
it. I think that God was talking to me."
The flight from Sanford to Orlando International had been
uneventful. After making a perfect takeoff from Orlando
International at 9:19, the Lear 35 was on its way to Dallas. At
9:33 the air traffic control center in Jacksonville reported
that it had lost contact with tail number N47BA.
The passengers on the plane were all successful men in the
boomtown business of sports. They were going to Dallas to meet
with developer Ted Blackard and his associates about building a
golf course on a 720-acre plot of land in Frisco, Texas.
The key figure was Stewart, 42, who had undergone a personal and
professional renaissance in the 1999 PGA season. After being
drawn back toward religion by his friend Orel Hershiser, the
veteran baseball pitcher, Stewart had become active in the First
Baptist Church in Orlando and had seemed to settle down as a
golfer and as a person. He had won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and
the U.S. Open in 1999, his first Tour wins in four years, and
had been a prominent member of the victorious U.S. team in the
Ryder Cup competition in September. Stewart was back at the
forefront of his game, a familiar national figure with his
knickers and tam-o'-shanter.
The proposed golf course not only would bear Stewart's name and
be designed by him but also would be the home course of the golf
team at Southern Methodist, his alma mater. Stewart had been
involved a year earlier in the design of the Coyote Hills Golf
Course in Fullerton, Calif., and had enjoyed the process. This
was a new, lucrative area for him to explore.
Traveling with Stewart were the two top executives at Leader
Enterprises, 46-year-old Robert Fraley and 45-year-old Van
Ardan, who had arranged the Dallas meeting and had chartered the
plane for the trip. They were not only Stewart's business
representatives but also two of his best friends. Stewart had
been a Leader client since 1985. Fraley was the godfather to
Stewart's two children: daughter Chelsea, now 14, and son Aaron,
Stewart had been scheduled to appear at a one-day celebrity
tournament for Charities for Children at Orlando's Bay Hill Golf
Club on Oct. 25, but he had dropped out to make the meeting in
Texas. The scheduling made sense because he was due to play in
the Tournament of Champions in Houston the next week. He and
Fraley and Ardan planned to talk with the developers in Dallas
in the afternoon, then travel on to Houston at night. Ardan
would return to Orlando on Tuesday. Fraley would continue on to
Los Angeles to meet with Frank Thomas, then to Seattle to talk
with Seahawks defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy.
There was a good chance that Stewart would spend time in Houston
with the Rockets' Charles Barkley. He and Stewart had become
friends at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "Payne really wanted
to go to the Olympics that year," Boston Globe sportswriter Will
McDonough, friend to both Stewart and Fraley, says. "I was
working at the Games for NBC, and he asked if I could help him
with tickets. It worked out great. He wound up playing golf just
about every day with the players from the Dream Team. He had a
blast. He became known as the Official PGA Pro of the Dream Team.
"He played a lot with Michael Jordan. I asked him one day how
good Jordan was. He said Jordan was pretty good but always
wanted to bet big money on the matches, and he didn't want to do
that, take the money. He did it, but he didn't like it. On just
about the last day of the Games, he played again with Jordan. I
asked what Jordan had shot. Payne said, 'Seventy-two.' I said,
'Whoa. Jordan must have got a lot of that money back.' I asked
Payne what he'd shot. He said, 'Sixty-four.'"
His swing always had been beautiful--free and easy yet precise.
His head had caught up with his swing in recent years. Seen
sometimes as cocky and abrasive early in his rise to golf
success, this young guy from Springfield, Mo., in weird clothes
had become a strong family man in early middle age, close to his
wife, Tracey, their two children and his church. He seemed
happier than he ever had been--renewed, reinvigorated. He had
started the '99 season without a golf-equipment endorsement
deal, by his choice. He purchased clubs from a local discount
warehouse, a mixed set of Titleist woods and Mizuno irons, and
made his unendorsed comeback.
A symbol of his born-again faith was the yellow WWJD (What Would
Jesus Do) bracelet that he wore, a gift from his son. Payne wore
it for all four rounds when he won the Open.
Fraley and Ardan also were churchgoers, Christian businessmen,
tough at times but fair and honest. Fraley, a quarterback on the
Alabama football team that went through the 1973 regular season
unbeaten and played for the national championship in the Sugar
Bowl, was the founder of Leader Enterprises. He had been a tax
lawyer in Lakeland, Fla., but was drawn into sports management
when he started handling the affairs of a bunch of former
Alabama athletes. He started Leader in 1985. Ardan, a
stockbroker from MacLean, Va., joined the firm in 1990. He
oversaw much of the golf business.
Hershiser, a Leader client from the beginning, says he and his
wife, Jamie, "relied on Robert for almost everything. A lot of
our conversations had phrases like 'What does Robert think?'
'Have you talked to Robert?' 'You sound like Robert.' 'Call
Robert.' Robert was very reserved, but over the years he opened
up to me. We were so close that one day [his wife] Dixie told me
that he loved me like a brother."
"They were both fantastic to me," Jim McGovern, a 35-year-old
golfer from Oradell, N.J., who is usually found in the back of
the PGA pack, says of Fraley and Ardan. "I didn't have any
representation--just my father--and Bill Parcells, who's a New
Jersey guy, recommended me to Robert and Van. They treated Jim
McGovern the same way they treated Payne Stewart or Paul
Azinger. They called me all the time. They got me endorsements,
invitations. They didn't fool around in business, but they were
The final passenger on the plane was 40-year-old golf-course
architect Bruce Borland. He was a late addition. Stewart's
caddie, Mike Hicks, had been scheduled to make the trip, but
when Stewart missed the cut at the Disney Classic the previous
week, Hicks was free to drive with his wife, Meg, to their home
in Mebane, N.C., for a few days. He would meet Stewart in
Houston. This opened up a seat for Borland.
A golf course, like a celebrity autobiography, might have a
famous name attached to it, but someone else usually does much
of the work that goes into it. Borland had been a senior
designer at Golden Bear International in North Palm Beach, Fla.,
for a decade, a Chicago guy lured south to work with Jack
Nicklaus. He had designed or helped design a dozen Nicklaus
courses around the world, including the renowned Colleton River
Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C. More than a year and a half
earlier he had talked with Dallas developer Blackard, who had
arrived at the Nicklaus operation looking for information for
another project. Borland happened to be in the office. The two
men became friendly. Blackard thought of Borland for his new
"This was an opportunity for Bruce," Chris Cochran, another
Nicklaus design associate and a friend of Borland's, says. "He'd
never worked with Payne, didn't really know him. He'd been
booked on a commercial flight to Dallas, but flying on the
charter was a chance to get to know Payne and the other people.
I encouraged him to go with them. Bruce's wife, Kate, encouraged
Borland drove to the airport from his home in Jupiter. Ardan
gave Stewart a ride. Stewart had made a pancake breakfast for
his kids before Tracey drove them to school. Ardan had had a
busy weekend. He had celebrated his 45th birthday on Friday by
taking his son, Ivan, golfing in the afternoon, and then two of
his daughters had cooked his favorite dinner: turkey, mashed
potatoes with gravy and pecan pie. On Saturday, Van and his
wife, Debbie, had joined Robert and Dixie Fraley at a surprise
70th birthday party for Paul Azinger's mother, Jean, at the
Grand Floridian Hotel in Lake Buena Vista. On Monday morning
Dixie drove Robert to the airport. He was the last to arrive for
Before the plane took off, Fraley called the Leader offices and
requested that someone call the Dallas people and ask them to
move up the meeting by half an hour. Fraley expected the plane
to arrive ahead of schedule.
The officer on duty at the command center in the Cheyenne
Mountain headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense
Command (NORAD), in Colorado Springs, was Navy Capt. Ric Mayne,
49. The Cheyenne facility--carved into the mountain and still
stocked with enough fuel, food and water to sustain 800 people
for 30 days in the event of a thermonuclear attack--is a
monument to the cold war tensions of the '50s and '60s. Lights
blink, computer and radar screens glow, and decisions can be
made in an instant if strange aircraft or missiles should invade
The picture on Mayne's radar screen just after 10 a.m. was the
green icon of an airplane heading in a straight line across a
black background. This represented the flight of tail number
N47BA. "The Federal Aviation Administration called for our
help," Mayne, a 26-year naval veteran, says. "They said they had
a derelict aircraft, not responding to calls. They asked if we
could send someone up to look at it."
This was not an unprecedented request. Various situations arise
in which airplanes lose contact with the ground, and military
fighters are sent up to investigate. The military pilot
sometimes waves to the civilian pilot, whose radio has broken
down, and the civilian pilot waves back and finds a place to land.
When Jacksonville air traffic control lost contact with the Lear
35 at 9:33, the plane had just been cleared to proceed at 39,000
feet. All subsequent attempts to reach the
pilots--"November-four-seven-bravo-alpha, do you read me?"--had
been unsuccessful. Also, radar showed that the plane had not
made a scheduled left turn to head toward Texas, continuing
instead on its previous northern course.
The FAA's call for assistance was received at Cheyenne Mountain
at approximately 10 o'clock. Two National Guard F-16 fighters at
Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., were scrambled at
10:08 and airborne at 10:10 before Mayne realized that an F-16
from Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., already
was in the air and could reach the Lear sooner. The Eglin plane
was diverted, and the Tyndall jets recalled to their base.
The pilot of the Eglin plane was Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton,
32. He had spent the early morning practicing dogfights over the
Gulf of Mexico against a slower A-10 jet, also from Eglin. This
was a normal training exercise--swoops and rolls, imaginary
warfare--held two or three times a month. Hamilton was surprised
by the order to chase a civilian plane and investigate. He never
had done this.
After meeting an Air Force tanker to add fuel in midair,
Hamilton flew a course that would bisect the Lear's route. He
was traveling at roughly 500 mph. The Lear was traveling at
roughly 300 mph. Hamilton was told he would catch the plane
somewhere above Memphis.
The chase took approximately 50 minutes. When Hamilton spotted
the Lear, he slowed down to match its speed. He flew in
formation with the Lear on the left side and then the right,
flew underneath the Lear and above it. Visibility was perfect.
Hamilton thought, as he stared from the bubble canopy of his
fighter, that if he were standing and looking at the plane
parked on the ground, he couldn't have a better view than he did
now. He hoped to see people in the windows or at least to see
some external damage that was causing some problem. He saw
The plane was flying perfectly, a vision from a promotional
video. The disturbing difference was that the windows all were
frosted, clouded over, as if they were windows in a freezer.
Hamilton immediately knew the sad truth: The frozen condensation
on the inside of the windows meant that the Lear's oxygen
systems were not functioning correctly. The plane was flying on
autopilot. The people inside, whoever they were and however many
they were, already were dead. "It definitely was a helpless
feeling," Hamilton says. "To see everything else functioning
normally and to know that someone was inside--and there's
nothing you can do. It was something out of The Twilight Zone."
He radioed his observations to the Memphis NORAD center at
11:09. For the next half hour Hamilton flew alongside the Lear,
an escort to a ghost. From Cheyenne Mountain, Mayne arranged for
four fighters from the Oklahoma National Guard in Tulsa to
replace Hamilton at 11:59. The FAA and NORAD were already
calculating how long the plane would remain aloft before it
crashed. Fuel supply and average speed and weather conditions
were put into the formula. It was estimated that the plane could
stay in the air for slightly more than four hours after takeoff.
As the plane moved north, the FAA cleared a tunnel of airspace
for it, rerouting transcontinental flights that might cross its
path. The Lear climbed higher sometimes and dropped sometimes
but maintained its course on the same straight line.
Captain Mayne, in the mountain, could only stare at the little
green icon. Surrounded by the ultimate in modern technology,
linked to all the aeronautical resources of the most resourceful
nation on the planet, he could do nothing. "It was very
disturbing," he says, "to feel so helpless."
The news of what had happened to the Lear began to filter out to
the public and to the families of the people aboard the plane.
The FAA called James Watkins as soon as radio contact was lost.
Watkins did not worry. He figured there was a problem with the
radio. Sunjet had never had a crash. Watkins called Donna Stout
and told her about the interrupted communication with air
traffic control and told her not to worry. Then the FAA called
Watkins again. This time it asked how much fuel had been pumped
into the plane's tanks. Watkins became very worried and started
to monitor the FAA's radio communications.
The media picked up the story in Washington, D.C. Jamie
McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, received a tip from an
Air Force source that there was "a runaway plane" cutting across
America, chased by military jets. Robert Hager, NBC's aviation
expert, received a tip from a former member of the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). This tip also said that
Payne Stewart was aboard the plane. The other networks received
other tips. The news was put on the air, announcers breaking
into morning programs. CNN and MSNBC quickly switched to
full-time coverage of the runaway plane. "It was a compelling
story," a CNN official says. "A question you always ask about
news is, Would it be the first thing I would talk about with my
wife when I got home at the end of the day? That certainly would
be the case here."
Hager and McIntyre, who by now also had heard a rumor that
Stewart was on the plane, withheld mentioning the golfer's name
on the air. Neither wanted a broadcast report to be the way the
news reached Stewart's family or the other families. The first
televised reports stated only that there was a runaway plane,
that the Air Force was in pursuit and that the plane's windows
were fogged, indicating that everyone aboard probably had died
from lack of oxygen. Subsequent reports mentioned first that "a
prominent person" was on the passenger list and then that "a
prominent golfer" was aboard. Finally one used Stewart's name,
and the dam broke. Everybody used Stewart's name.
Tracey Stewart heard the news at home. Gloria Baker, the
Stewarts' administrative assistant, received a call from a
friend in Chicago asking why Air Force jets were following
Payne's plane. She thought it was a joke. Then other calls came,
and she knew it wasn't. Baker and Tracey turned on the
television. Tracey tried to call her husband on his cell phone.
There was no answer.
Bobby Bellegarrigue was working on a dental patient when someone
came into his room to tell him what had happened to his sister's
plane. He left the room and walked by a lounge area where
everyone was watching the television. He stopped and watched
with the others in disbelief.
The first calls at Bay Hill, where the celebrity golf tournament
was taking place, inquired about Arnold Palmer, who is Bay
Hill's principal owner. Was Arnold on that plane? The news had
said only "a prominent golfer." Palmer was the most famous
golfer-pilot in the world. Officials told callers that Palmer
was not on the plane. The second wave of calls asked about
In the midst of his round at Bay Hill, Lee Janzen, a friend and
rival of Stewart's, a former client of Fraley and Ardan's, heard
the news and walked off the course. Mark O'Meara, a neighbor of
Stewart's in Orlando, left Bay Hill, went home, got into his
fishing boat and rode across Butler Chain to Pocket Lake and
Stewart's house to offer Tracey his support. Jim McGovern was at
home in New Jersey with his three children. He saw the news on
television, listened to the grim reports and couldn't watch
anymore. He took the children to a park with tears in his eyes.