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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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Their shared goal was to establish a Christian ministry in Third World countries. Kling was a part-time preacher and a church singer. He hoped someday to buy his own plane and fly from country to country, delivering food to the needy and spreading the gospel. With the children grown and living separate lives, Kling and Stout recently had sold their house and furniture to be ready to move toward their goal. He had a second business selling nutritional supplements to earn extra money. The couple planned to preach first in Haiti. "We'd moved to Orlando for this next step," Stout says. "Mike already had been to Haiti a few times. We were ready to go."

Bellegarrigue, the copilot, 27 years old, was known as a free spirit. She was bright and lively. Watkins found repeat clients asking, "Hey, can we have Stephanie again?" Born in El Salvador, raised mostly in Winter Haven, Fla., she had gone to Ohio State and walked on as a synchronized swimmer. At 16 she'd won a silver medal in the sport for El Salvador in the Central American Games.

A friend of Bellegarrigue's at Ohio State was a pilot and took her flying one day. Bellegarrigue fell in love with the view, the perspective from the sky, the absence of boundaries. This was a picture from her heart. She eventually left Ohio State to get a degree in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach. Bellegarrigue owned a four-seat Cessna for a while in Winter Haven, giving flying lessons and working charters. Then she joined Sunjet rather than a commercial carrier to avoid any semblance of a nine-to-five schedule. She wanted the freedom to follow her interests.

"My sister didn't even have cable television," Stephanie's brother, Bobby, a dental student at Florida, says. "Her idea was to do the things that were shown on television rather than watch someone else do them. She always was on the move. She had a lot of energy. She'd say, 'Let's fly to the Bahamas,' and just do it."

She had spent the weekend at Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach with friend and fellow pilot Helena Reidemar, talking, going to a party, then coming home on Sunday so she would be ready for her flight on Monday. Kling had spent the weekend around the house he already had sold. He mowed the lawn. He went to church. On Sunday night he went to bed after a visit to a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza parlor and a game of Monopoly with two of Stout's grandchildren. "He woke up early to go to the airport," Stout says. "He said goodbye, and I said, 'Be blessed.' I had been up late the night before, so I turned over and went back to sleep."

She awakened again at 9:30 with a nervous feeling. She wasn't sure why. Her husband dominated her thoughts. He was expected to be gone for two or three days on this trip, and she missed him. She knew that he had work to do. She began to pray to accept his absence. She prayed for a while. "I felt in my heart I was supposed to release Mike, to let him fulfill everything he was supposed to be," she says. "I prayed for that. I can't explain it. I think that God was talking to me."

The flight from Sanford to Orlando International had been uneventful. After making a perfect takeoff from Orlando International at 9:19, the Lear 35 was on its way to Dallas. At 9:33 the air traffic control center in Jacksonville reported that it had lost contact with tail number N47BA.

The passengers on the plane were all successful men in the boomtown business of sports. They were going to Dallas to meet with developer Ted Blackard and his associates about building a golf course on a 720-acre plot of land in Frisco, Texas.

The key figure was Stewart, 42, who had undergone a personal and professional renaissance in the 1999 PGA season. After being drawn back toward religion by his friend Orel Hershiser, the veteran baseball pitcher, Stewart had become active in the First Baptist Church in Orlando and had seemed to settle down as a golfer and as a person. He had won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the U.S. Open in 1999, his first Tour wins in four years, and had been a prominent member of the victorious U.S. team in the Ryder Cup competition in September. Stewart was back at the forefront of his game, a familiar national figure with his knickers and tam-o'-shanter.

The proposed golf course not only would bear Stewart's name and be designed by him but also would be the home course of the golf team at Southern Methodist, his alma mater. Stewart had been involved a year earlier in the design of the Coyote Hills Golf Course in Fullerton, Calif., and had enjoyed the process. This was a new, lucrative area for him to explore.

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