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March 27, 2014 7:23 am

LAWRENCE AT LARGE: Flight 370’s fate recalls 1999 crash

Written by Tom Lawrence

The eerie final flight of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 calls to mind another mystery flight that ended with the deaths of all aboard.

But while Flight 370 ended in the cold, deep waters of the southern Indian Ocean, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the other flight came to earth in the barren Upper Midwest of the United States.

That tragedy occurred on Oct. 25, 1999, when pro golfer Payne Stewart and five others were killed when a Learjet crashed in rancher John Hoffman’s pasture near tiny Mina in Edmunds County, S.D. Unlike Flight 370, however, the Learjet’s last flight was closely observed, covered by the media and followed by millions before it came to a sudden end.

Stewart, 42, was wrapping up one of the best years of his career in 1999. He had won his second U.S. Open and was a key player in the USA’s victory in the Ruder Cup. The handsome, blond golfer wore knickers, argyle socks and a confident smile when he played.

On that fall morning, he was headed to Dallas, where he was planning to discuss building a course for his alma mater, Southern Methodist University, before preparing to play in The Tour Championship.

Pilot Michael Kling, 42, and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27, were at the controls. Stewart was accompanied by agents Robert Fraley, 46, and Van Ardan, 45, and golf course designer Bruce Borland, 40, who worked with Jack Nicklaus on course design.

But something went terribly wrong less than a half hour into the flight. Efforts to contact the flight were unanswered. Three times, F-16 fighter jets flew to the plane to try to rouse someone, or to determine what was wrong.

All the pilots in the five jets could see were darkened windows, apparently from ice. There was no answer when they radioed, and no visible movement aboard the plane.

On Nov. 28, 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that cited “incapacitation of the flight crewmembers as a result of their failure to receive supplemental oxygen following a loss of cabin pressurization, for undetermined reasons.”

It appears there was either a dramatic loss of pressure when the cabin developed a problem, or a slow loss of pressure that can cause people to lose the ability to make decisions. Either can be deadly aboard an airline.

The plane, loaded with fuel before it left Florida, flew for 1,500 miles and nearly four hours with no one at the controls before it ran dry. It spiraled to earth, with four fighter jets nearby, their pilots watching helplessly. Despite some reports, there were no orders to shoot the plane down if it neared populated areas.

It didn’t, of course, crashing in a remote spot in sparsely populated South Dakota. Back in 1999, Ken Dunn of Mina told USA Today he saw a Learjet flying high overhead, flanked by two F-16s.

“The one in trouble started flip-flopping, and then it just came straight down,” Dunn said. “I knew there was nothing there, just pieces.”

He drove to the scene and saw the huge hole in the flat ground. Pieces of the aircraft and the shattered remains of its passengers were scattered about. A stone memorial bearing the names of the six people was placed in the pasture in 2000.

Unlike those with loved ones on Flight 370, there was no long wait for the family of Stewart and the other five people on that ghostly flight across the country, no seemingly endless speculation, no rumors and wild conjectures. But the pain is surely the same.

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