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The Ghost Plane
Leigh Montville
April 10, 2000
For three endless hours last October the entire nation watched, horrified but helpless, as a runaway jet carried Payne Stewart and five others to its terrible destination
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April 10, 2000

The Ghost Plane

For three endless hours last October the entire nation watched, horrified but helpless, as a runaway jet carried Payne Stewart and five others to its terrible destination

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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 me 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�, high of 78�, 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 academy.

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 fastidiousness.

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."

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