IN DEPTH

The Final Flight: The untold story of the crash that killed Payne Stewart

Us Open Payne Stewart 1

It was a little after midday Central Time on Monday, October 25, 1999. Jon Hoffman was leading a pheasant hunting expedition around a mile from his home in the small, lakeside town of Mina, South Dakota. “We’re probably the pheasant capital of the world,” he tells bunkered. “It’s a pretty big sport around here. People come from all over for it.”

That particular morning, he was hosting a large group – around 20 in all – from Texas. They were coming to the end of their hunt when one of the group members stopped suddenly and called out to his friends. A plane, he insisted, had just fallen from the sky straight into the ground nearby.

“Thing is, he was the only one to see it,” explains Hoffman, “There was no explosion, no boom, nothing. We all figured he must have been seeing things. But around ten minutes later, two F-16 jets went screaming right over the top of us. That’s when we knew that something was up.”

One of the party pulled out his phone and called his wife. Like the rest of the country, as it turned out, she had been glued to the television that morning. Every news station was covering the same story, the peculiar tale of a “ghost plane” that appeared to be charting a desultory, sombre course across the southern and Midwestern United States. 

At 9:19am Florida time, the aircraft – a Learjet 35 operated by SunJet Aviation – had left Orlando International Airport in Florida bound for Dallas. Less than 15 minutes after take off, as it climbed to a cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, air traffic control lost contact with the plane. It was never re-established.

Almost four hours after departing Orlando and by now more than a thousand miles off-course, the plane’s fuel reserves expired in the sky high above South Dakota. As they did, the craft lurched forward into a nosedive, corkscrewing towards the cork at an almost supersonic speed. 

At 12:13 local time, it crashed in a quiet pasture on Hoffman’s cattle farm. There were six people on-board. Two crew, four passengers. None survived. Amongst those to perish was the reigning US Open champion, Payne Stewart.

Hoffman didn’t know any of that at the time, of course.

“One of my neighbours came racing over to where we were to let me know that a plane had crashed on my land,” he recalls. “I jumped in his truck and went to get my brother. He and I then drove down to the site and, by the time we got there, the gravel road closest to the field was a huge line of looky-loos. The police were blocking people off and diverting traffic away. I told them it was my farm and, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, they let me in. As we got closer, we could see little bitty fires on the ground and metal chunks lying everywhere. It looked like the plane had fractured like an ice cube. 

“It wasn’t long before we found out that Mr. Stewart had been on-board. It was hard to wrap your head around. It still is. A couple months earlier, I’d been at my father’s bedside in the hospital as he fought cancer and, together, we’d watched Mr. Stewart win the US Open at Pinehurst. Now he was gone, and on my property. None of it made any sense.”

For many days and weeks that followed, Mina and its 100 inhabitants were thrust into the global golf spotlight. It doesn’t have a course. The closest thing it ever had was a driving range that Hoffman and his brother built long before the crash. It’s gone now. So too are the looky-loos, the TV news trucks, and the air crash investigators.

But its tragic link to the game and one of its most iconic and charismatic players endures.

Hoffman’s wife, Carla, pauses as she reaches for the words to describe the events of that day. Finally, she finds them.

“It was horrifying,” she says. “To this day, any time I think about it, I get goosebumps all over.”

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WILLIAM PAYNE STEWART was born in Springfield, Missouri, on January 30, 1957. Two years earlier, his father Bill had played in the US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. It was almost pre-ordained that Payne would follow in tracks.

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After playing collegiate golf at Southern Methodist University in Texas, he turned professional in 1979. When he failed to get a PGA Tour card from Qualifying School that year, he packed his bags, crossed the Pacific and played on the Asia Golf Circuit instead. It proved to be a splendidly serendipitous decision. Not only did he win twice – the Indian Open and Indonesia Open, both in 1981 – he also met an Australian girl called Tracey Ferguson whilst in Kuala Lumpur. In November 1981, after a whirlwind romance, they tied the knot.

Around the same time, Stewart succeeded where he failed two years earlier, securing a PGA Tour for the 1982 season. In July that year, in just his fourth start as a cardholder on the world’s most lucrative golf circuit, he won his first title, the Quad Cities Open, now the John Deere Classic. Despite everything else he would go on to achieve, that first win remained the most meaningful to him, and for good reason. It was the only time his father got to see him win on the tour before he succumbed to cancer in 1985.

Just weeks before his own untimely passing, following his US Open victory at Pinehurst, Stewart said: “If I’m fortunate enough to win more majors or more golf tournaments, the ‘82 Quad Cities will still be my most cherished victory. That will never change.”

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That win at Pinehurst gave Stewart his third major. The first came in the 1989 US PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Illinois. Trailing by six going into the final round, he played his back nine in five-under and birdied four of his last five holes to prevail by a shot from Andy Bean, Mike Reid and Curtis Strange.

Just under two years later, he doubled his major haul, this time winning the US Open at Hazeltine.

In a week blackened by the tragic death of a spectator, killed after being struck by lightning during the opening round, Stewart defeated Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff. His three-over 75 was the highest winning score in the tournament since Tommy Armour had won with a 76 at Oakmont in 1927.

It was, in many ways, an improbable win. A neck injury had forced Stewart to miss ten weeks earlier in the season and he showed up at Hazeltine wearing a back brace. The challenge, though, brought out the competitor in him. “It was a grind all day,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t quit, and it showed me if I ever quit, I’m an idiot, because a lot of funny things can happen on the way to the clubhouse.”

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Scott McCarron recalls seeing Stewart’s never-give-up attitude at close quarters during the Shell Houston Open in May 1996. Having won his first PGA Tour title just a few weeks earlier, the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans,McCarron found himself paired with Stewart in the opening round at The Woodlands.

“I’ll never forget, I absolutely bombed one on one,” he says. “I didn’t know Payne very well at all and I was about 40 or 50 yards by him, but I just smoked it by him. I walked up to Payne and I said, “Is that your ball or my ball?” He said, “Oh, that’s mine.” I said, “Oh, yeah, mine’s up there. There’s a Walmart between our balls.” He just looked at me, smiled and said, “Oh it’s on!” We became instant friends. He loved to give it to people. He was such a character.”

Nothing demonstrated his character more brilliantly than the outfits Stewart wore. With his ivy caps and plus-fours, he stood out a mile and then some. The idea to dress a little more flamboyantly formed in his mind on his very first PGA Tour start back in 1982. Standing on the driving range, he looked along the line at his fellow players. “Hell, we all looked just the same,” he later recalled. Right then, he remembered a piece of advice his father had once given him: the easiest way to stand out in a crowd is to dress differently.

His sartorial flamboyance drew some snickers and jaunty looks but Stewart had the last laugh. His attire captured the attention and the imagination of the NFL. They put a multi-million dollar contract in front of him to wear his trademark outfit in the colours of whichever American football teamed played closest to the tournament venue any given week on tour. When he pegged it up at Doral, he’d wear the colours of the Miami Dolphins. Olympia Fields? The Chicago Bears. Warwick Hills? The Detroit Lions.

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The eye-catching outfits made Stewart one of the world's most famous golfers. In the mid-1990s, when he put his Florida mansion up for sale, Michael Jackson came to view it. At first, he had no idea who Stewart was. When the estate agent accompanying explained he was “the golfer guy with the funny clothes”, Jackson looked at Stewart and said: “Oh, yeah, I know who you are now.”

But fame, fortune and success could only ever contest second place in Stewart’s affections. Top spot was reserved for one thing: fun with his family and friends.

Jim Furyk recalls getting to know Stewart during the Merrill Lynch tournament in Bermuda early in his career on tour.

“He and Tracey kind of saw Tabitha and I out at a little Mexican restaurant, you know, in shorts, T-shirts, flip flops,” he smiles. “We might have had a pitcher of margaritas or two and really just enjoyed the company.

“If Payne was around, he wasn’t going to let you mope or hang your head or pout. If that was the case, he was going to give you some crap and wear you out a little bit, tease you, poke fun. He was just a fun-loving guy and a guy who seemed to always have a good time. That’s what I remember. When I was around Payne, I was always laughing. If I was upset about something, he changed my outlook on my day.”

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He was also a proud American who thrived in the Ryder Cup. A certain future captain, he made five appearances in the match, the last of which came just four weeks before his death.

Having lost both the 1995 and 1997 contests, the US – captained by two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw – was in no mood to let Europe inflict an unprecedented third successive defeat on them and, in Stewart, Crenshaw had a ready-made de facto on-course lieutenant.

In the third match of the opening morning foursomes at Brookline, the American skipper paired Stewart with Davis Love III. On paper, it looked an unlikely partnership. Nobody was more surprised by it than Love himself.

“The night before, Payne gets in my face a little bit and he says, ‘I need some more enthusiasm and passion out of you,’” he recalls. “What he was telling me is he likes to get excited and fire up the crowd and play with passion and he just saw me as a guy who kind of meekly played along.

“So, we got out there and I tried my best. We got to the 17th hole and I had been not playing great, but we were either even or one-down. He drove it out there nice and I hit it in the bunker. I was disappointed but I didn’t want to hang my head and walk up to the green.

“So I said, ‘I tell you what, Payne, you get it anywhere on the green and I will make it.’ It was a hard bunker shot but he got it out to like ten feet and I poured it in, gave it a big fist pump and he came up and was poking me in the chest and he goes, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’

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“From then on, I knew how to be a better teammate. He gave me a great lesson. We ended up winning on Sunday and he had on red, white and blue pyjama pants standing on the piano smoking a cigar.”

As he boarded his chartered Learjet on October 25, 1999, Stewart was the reigning US Open champion and had won three majors and 11 PGA Tour titles. With more than $12.5 million in career prize money, he was the third highest earner in the history of the tour and had spent more than 250 weeks inside the world’s top-10, reaching a high of third.

He was also a 42-year-old, happily married father-of-two. He had so much more to give.

--

AS FLIGHT N47BA CRUISED towards inexorable disaster on Jon Hoffman’s South Dakota farm, word spread quickly around the PGA Tour that a pro was aboard the stricken jet. Many of the world’s top golfers were scheduled to fly out of Orlando that Monday morning having played in the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Walt Disney World.

Tiger Woods won the event, his 13th PGA Tour victory in little over three years as a pro. Initially, it was suggested by some television news networks that he was the golfer on-board. He wasn’t, of course. He was at Isleworth Country Club in Florida. “I showed up in the men’s grill [and people there said] ‘OK, obviously, it’s not you,’” he recalled. “My phone was blowing up. Everyone thought it was me.”

Panicked family members and friends started calling other players who had been in Orlando, all of them riffing on the same frantic theme: Please be okay.

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It was soon established that Stewart was on the flight. In that instant, little else mattered. Tee times were cancelled. Practice rounds were abandoned. Travel plans were put on-hold. For a few hours, there were no ropes. Players and fans stood shoulder to shoulder as they watched the tragedy unfold. Some cried. Others, like Hal Sutton, said a prayer. Many more ached at the horrible helplessness of it all.

An F-16 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept the plane, which continued to be unresponsive. It found N47BA at an altitude of 46,400 feet. The pilot of the jet reported both engines were running and that the plane’s red rotating anti-collision beacon was on. Tellingly, though, he couldn’t see inside it. The windows of the plane appeared to have frosted over, a telltale sign of cabin depressurisation.

In time, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would corroborate that hypothesis. It concluded that the probable cause of the accident was the incapacitation of the crew following a loss of cabin pressure. What prompted that was never established. The same NTSB report documented several instances of maintenance work related to cabin pressure being carried out on the plane in the months leading up to the accident but the NTSB was unable to determine whether or not they stemmed from a common or persistent problem.

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In any event, it was concluded that all on-board had likely died from hypoxia long before the plane had left the skies above Florida. Because the autopilot had been engaged, the craft remained airborne, tethered to catastrophic inevitability when it finally ran out of fuel.

F-16 fighters from various divisions of the Air National Guard continued to tail it until finally, at 12:11pm Central Time, N47BA started to nosedive.

“The target is descending and he is doing multiple aileron rolls,” reported one of the F-16 pilots. “Looks like he’s out of control and in a severe descent.” Another said: “It’s soon to impact the ground; he is in a descending spiral.”

Soon, silence.

The impact left a crater in the ground that was forty feet long, twenty feet wide, and eight feet deep but, because the plane had run out of fuel, there was no explosion.

The morning after the crash, Jon Hoffman left home around 7am. On the short drive to his farm, he counted ten news trucks, each emblazoned with the insignia of one of the big American TV networks. Huge satellite dishes whirred on their roofs. The majority stayed for the next week. CNN camped out a little longer. It was only after they had all gone that the clean up operation redirected its focus towards recovering what personal effects it could for the victims’ families. Wedding rings were found amidst the rubble. So, too, a broken set of golf clubs. Perhaps most poignant of all was a harmonica, in tact but flattened. Stewart rarely left home without one.

A large boulder excavated from the impact zone demonstrated the shocking velocity with which the plane hit the ground. A smooth, clean slice had split the huge rock into two. The larger part was taken, cleaned up and, with the consent of the victims’ families, became a memorial marker that stands on the site of the crash to this day. It has been engraved with the names of the six who died in the accident, along with the date of the crash and a Bible verse, Psalms 40:2, chosen by the victims’ wives.

Hoffman cemented over the impact zone and placed the memorial marker upon it before fencing off the area to keep his cattle out. In the 21-plus years since the crash, many members of the victims’ families have traveled to the site. Golf fans, too.

“We get a lot of people come visit and I’m happy to escort them down there so they can pay their respects,” says Hoffman. “Some people leave flowers. I remember one guy left a flat cap like Mr. Stewart would wear. I guess that shows you what kind of man he was, that strangers would want to come here and visit. You know, a lot of Payne Stewart is there, in that ground. He’s part of it now. It feels only right that it should be a memorial for him and the others who died that day.”

Hoffman thinks of Stewart often. Of the way he used to dress, of the way he behaved, and more than anything, of how good a golfer he was.

“I play myself so I know only too well how hard it is to be good at golf. I’m sixty now and I’m still trying to get better. I go on YouTube and watch lessons and stuff. I can hit a ball pretty good. But he was one of the best. You know, people thought the world of him, myself included. He was a legend of the game. He is a legend of the game. More than twenty years on and here we are still talking about him.

"He’s never going to be forgotten.”

--

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The other victims of N47BA

Bruce Borland

Borland’s love of golf course design formed at an early age when he built a putting green in his parents’ garden. In 1989, he moved to Chicago to open his own design firm. A year later, he joined Jack Nicklaus’ Golden Bear International.

Michael Kling

Forty-two-year-old Kling was a hugely experienced pilot with more than 4,000 hours of flight time at the time of the accident. According to friends, he planned to start a church in Orlando when he retired.

Stephanie Bellegarrigue

First officer Bellegarrigue, 27, was born in El Salvador before moving to Maryland in 1974 and then in Florida. She trained at Embry-Liddle Aeronautics University and gave flying lessons before joining SunJet.

Robert Fraley

A former college quarterback, Fraley excelled both on and off the field. He was CEO of Leader Enterprises Inc, where he managed the careers of top sports stars, including Stewart.

Van Ardan

Along with Fraley, 45-year-old Ardan managed Stewart’s career. Deeply religious, his widow Debbie remembered him as a man who lived for the moment. She recalled: “He always said to me, ‘All of this could soon be gone, so let’s be thankful today.’”

--

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This interview first appeared in issue 185 of bunkered (May 2021). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.

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