Payne Stewart PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:02 Payne Stewart

Born: January 30, 1957 Springfield, Missouri

Died: October 25, 1999, Mina, South Dakota

Age: 42

Cause of death: Plane accident.

Notable because: His lear jet with him dead inside continued flying on auto pilot until it ran out of fuel.


Payne Stewart was an American professional golfer who won three majors in his career, the last of which occurred only months before he died in an airplane accident at the age of 42.

Stewart was born in Springfield, Missouri, and attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta. He was always popular with fans, especially for his clothing, and was reputed to have the biggest wardrobe of all professional golfers. He was a favorite of photographers because of his tam o'shanter caps and patterned trousers, which were a cross between plus fours and knickerbockers, a throwback to the once-commonplace golfing "uniform".

On October 25, 1999, a month after the American team rallied to win the 1999 Ryder Cup in Brookline, Massachusetts, and four months after his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst No. 2, Stewart was killed in the depressurization of a Learjet flying from Orlando to Dallas, Texas for the year-ending tournament, The Tour Championship, held at Champions Golf Club in Houston that year. The last communication received from the pilots was at 9:27 AM EDT, and the plane made a right turn at 9:30 AM EDT that was probably the result of human input. At 9:33 AM EDT the pilots did not respond to a call to change radio frequencies, and there was no further contact from the plane. The plane, apparently still on autopilot and angled off-course, was observed by Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft as it continued its flight over the southern and midwestern United States. The military pilots observed frost or condensation on the windshield (consistent with loss of cabin pressure) which obscured the cockpit, and no motion was visible through the small patch of windshield that was clear.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded that the plane suffered a loss of cabin pressure and that all on board died of hypoxia, lack of oxygen. A delay of only a few seconds in donning oxygen masks, coupled with cognitive and motor skill impairment, could have been enough to result in the pilots' incapacitation. The NTSB report showed that the plane had several instances of maintenance work related to cabin pressure in the months leading up to the accident. The NTSB was unable to determine whether they stemmed from a common problem - replacements and repairs were documented, but not the pilot discrepancy reports that prompted them or the frequency of such reports. The report gently chides Sunjet Aviation for the possibility that this would have made the problem harder to identify, track, and resolve; as well as the fact that in at least one instance the plane was flown with an unauthorized maintenance deferral for cabin pressure problems.

There was some speculation that military jets were prepared to shoot down the Lear if it threatened to crash in a heavily populated area. Officials at the Pentagon strongly denied that possibility. "Shooting down the plane was never an option," Air Force spokesman Capt. Joe Della Vedova said. "I don't know where that came from."

Instead, according to an Air Force timeline, a series of military planes provided an emergency escort to the stricken Lear, beginning with an F-16 from Eglin Air Force Base, about an hour and twenty minutes (9:33 EDT to 9:52 CDT - see NTSB report on the crash) after ground controllers lost contact. The plane continued flying until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a field around Mina, a town ten miles west of Aberdeen, South Dakota after an uncontrolled descent. The five other people aboard the plane included his agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, and pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, along with Bruce Borland, a highly-regarded golf architect with the Jack Nicklaus golf course design company.

At the time of his death, Stewart had won $12,673,193 in career earnings.

At that year's Tour Championship, Stewart's good friend Stuart Appleby organized a tribute to his friend. With the widow's permission, he wore one of Payne's own signature outfits for the final round of the tournament, and most of the rest of the golfers in the field wore "short pants" that day as well.

One year after Stewart's death, his widow Tracey and her two children, as well as the family of Stewart's agent Robert Fraley who also died on that flight, brought a lawsuit seeking $200,000,000 in damages against the Learjet's operator SunJet Aviation Inc and owner JetShares One Inc. The case was brought to trial in Federal Court in Orlando, Florida where in June 2005 jurors acquitted the defendants of responsibility for the crash. In their verdict, the jurors also found that the plane's manufacturer, Learjet, had no liability in the deaths of Stewart and Fraley due to negligence in the design or manufacture of the plane.

After his death, the stretch of Interstate 44 that passes through Springfield, Missouri was designated as the Payne Stewart Memorial Highway in his memory. He also has a street in Fullerton, CA named after him that leads into a golf course he designed in the hilly oil fields found there. There is also a street named "Payne Stewart Drive" in Surrey, BC Canada named after him that leads into the golf course designed by the great Arnold Palmer.

In 2000, the PGA Tour established the Payne Stewart Award, given each year to a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, commitment to uphold the game's heritage of charitable support and professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 16:38

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