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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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A golf course, like a celebrity autobiography, might have a famous name attached to it, but someone else usually does much of the work that goes into it. Borland had been a senior designer at Golden Bear International in North Palm Beach, Fla., for a decade, a Chicago guy lured south to work with Jack Nicklaus. He had designed or helped design a dozen Nicklaus courses around the world, including the renowned Colleton River Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C. More than a year and a half earlier he had talked with Dallas developer Blackard, who had arrived at the Nicklaus operation looking for information for another project. Borland happened to be in the office. The two men became friendly. Blackard thought of Borland for his new Texas venture.

"This was an opportunity for Bruce," Chris Cochran, another Nicklaus design associate and a friend of Borland's, says. "He'd never worked with Payne, didn't really know him. He'd been booked on a commercial flight to Dallas, but flying on the charter was a chance to get to know Payne and the other people. I encouraged him to go with them. Bruce's wife, Kate, encouraged him."

Borland drove to the airport from his home in Jupiter. Ardan gave Stewart a ride. Stewart had made a pancake breakfast for his kids before Tracey drove them to school. Ardan had had a busy weekend. He had celebrated his 45th birthday on Friday by taking his son, Ivan, golfing in the afternoon, and then two of his daughters had cooked his favorite dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy and pecan pie. On Saturday, Van and his wife, Debbie, had joined Robert and Dixie Fraley at a surprise 70th birthday party for Paul Azinger's mother, Jean, at the Grand Floridian Hotel in Lake Buena Vista. On Monday morning Dixie drove Robert to the airport. He was the last to arrive for the flight.

Before the plane took off, Fraley called the Leader offices and requested that someone call the Dallas people and ask them to move up the meeting by half an hour. Fraley expected the plane to arrive ahead of schedule.

The officer on duty at the command center in the Cheyenne Mountain headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), in Colorado Springs, was Navy Capt. Ric Mayne, 49. The Cheyenne facility—carved into the mountain and still stocked with enough fuel, food and water to sustain 800 people for 30 days in the event of a thermonuclear attack—is a monument to the cold war tensions of the '50s and '60s. Lights blink, computer and radar screens glow, and decisions can be made in an instant if strange aircraft or missiles should invade U.S. airspace.

The picture on Mayne's radar screen just after 10 a.m. was the green icon of an airplane heading in a straight line across a black background. This represented the flight of tail number N47BA. "The Federal Aviation Administration called for our help," Mayne, a 26-year naval veteran, says. "They said they had a derelict aircraft, not responding to calls. They asked if we could send someone up to look at it."

This was not an unprecedented request. Various situations arise in which airplanes lose contact with the ground, and military fighters are sent up to investigate. The military pilot sometimes waves to the civilian pilot, whose radio has broken down, and the civilian pilot waves back and finds a place to land.

When Jacksonville air traffic control lost contact with the Lear 35 at 9:33, the plane had just been cleared to proceed at 39,000 feet. All subsequent attempts to reach the pilots—"November-four-seven-bravo-alpha, do you read me?"—had been unsuccessful. Also, radar showed that the plane had not made a scheduled left turn to head toward Texas, continuing instead on its previous northern course.

The FAA's call for assistance was received at Cheyenne Mountain at approximately 10 o'clock. Two National Guard F-16 fighters at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., were scrambled at 10:08 and airborne at 10:10 before Mayne realized that an F-16 from Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., already was in the air and could reach the Lear sooner. The Eglin plane was diverted, and the Tyndall jets recalled to their base.

The pilot of the Eglin plane was Air Force Capt. Chris Hamilton, 32. He had spent the early morning practicing dog-fights over the Gulf of Mexico against a slower A-10 jet, also from Eglin. This was a normal training exercise—swoops and rolls, imaginary warfare—held two or three times a month. Hamilton was surprised by the order to chase a civilian plane and investigate. He never had done this.

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