Monday, October 26, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Payne Stewart, October 25, 1999

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” John 3:8

October 25 1999: Six men boarded the Lear 35 at Orlando International – golfer Payne Stewart, and his agents Van Arden and Robert Fraley, plus Stewart’s golf course designer-partner Bruce Borland and two pilots.  The flight was supposed to go from Orlando, to Dallas, and then on to Houston. For the owner of the jet, US Open Champion Payne Stewart, this was business combined with more business, scouting out a possible golf course site in Dallas and then going on to Houston to play in the Tour Championship.  At age 42, Stewart was at the top of his game and on top of the world.

They never got to Texas.  Instead, Stewart’s flight veered radically off course, and ended in a 600mph crash near Mina, South Dakota, six hours after the flight originated. Flying at 39,000 feet, air traffic control became concerned about the flight when it climbed above its assigned altitude.  The FAA then asked the air force to help, and a flight of F-16 “Lawn Darts” were dispatched to intercept and investigate.  The President of the United States was notified. At 44,000 feet, two hours after the flight originated in Orlando, Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton sidled up beside the Lear in an effort to signal to the pilots.  What he saw instead was a cockpit obscured in “a light coat of frost.”  In the meantime, Tracey Stewart was trying to raise her husband on his cell phone. 
Initial speculation was that Stewart’s Lear had suffered “explosive decompression.” Four years previous the FAA had cautioned Lear 35 operators that faulty outflow valves in the model craft needed to be replaced to avoid depressurization in flight. Time Magazine, reporting on the initial crash, noted that

The official NTSB probe could take up to a year, but the unofficial-scenario spinning started almost immediately. Investigators concur that all passengers probably lost consciousness about the time of their last radio contact and that the plane logged 1,400 miles mostly on autopilot until its fuel tanks finally emptied. Initially, speculation centered on a so-called explosive decompression, or a sudden loss of cabin air pressure and oxygen supply, caused by a hole in the plane's skin or a malfunctioning valve. Above 40,000 ft., air as cold as -70[degrees]F would have instantly rushed in, frosting over the plane's windows. Pilots and passengers would probably have been alerted by alarms and flashing lights to reach for their oxygen masks, and would have had anywhere from five to 15 seconds to do so before losing consciousness. Concerned about just such a scenario, the FAA in 1995 issued an airworthiness directive telling owners of the Learjet 35 to replace faulty outflow valves that could "fail in flight leading to depressurization." Maintenance records for the Lear on which Stewart was flying indicate that another valve, the left-hand modulator valve, was replaced just days before the crash.

The potential danger to other aviation almost defies description.  The Lear ceased communicating with air traffic control 26 minutes after takeoff, and in traveling from Florida to the Dakotas, was according to Time’s aviation correspondent Jerry Hannifan “like an artillery shell crossing at least a dozen busy air routes at 400 or 500 miles an hour.