After meeting an Air Force tanker to add fuel in midair, Hamilton flew a course that would bisect the Lear's route. He was traveling at roughly 500 mph. The Lear was traveling at roughly 300 mph. Hamilton was told he would catch the plane somewhere above Memphis.
The chase took approximately 50 minutes. When Hamilton spotted the Lear, he slowed down to match its speed. He flew in formation with the Lear on the left side and then the right, flew underneath the Lear and above it. Visibility was perfect. Hamilton thought, as he stared from the bubble canopy of his fighter, that if he were standing and looking at the plane parked on the ground, he couldn't have a better view than he did now. He hoped to see people in the windows or at least to see some external damage that was causing some problem. He saw neither.
The plane was flying perfectly, a vision from a promotional video. The disturbing difference was that the windows all were frosted, clouded over, as if they were windows in a freezer. Hamilton immediately knew the sad truth: The frozen condensation on the inside of the windows meant that the Lear's oxygen systems were not functioning correctly. The plane was flying on autopilot. The people inside, whoever they were and however many they were, already were dead. "It definitely was a helpless feeling," Hamilton says. "To see everything else functioning normally and to know that someone was inside—and there's nothing you can do. It was something out of The Twilight Zone?
He radioed his observations to the Memphis NORAD center at 11:09. For the next half hour Hamilton flew alongside the Lear, an escort to a ghost. From Cheyenne Mountain, Mayne arranged for four fighters from the Oklahoma National Guard in Tulsa to replace Hamilton at 11:59. The FAA and NORAD were already calculating how long the plane would remain aloft before it crashed. Fuel supply and average speed and weather conditions were put into the formula. It was estimated that the plane could stay in the air for slightly more than four hours after takeoff.
As the plane moved north, the FAA cleared a tunnel of airspace for it, rerouting transcontinental flights that might cross its path. The Lear climbed higher sometimes and dropped sometimes but maintained its course on the same straight line.
Captain Mayne, in the mountain, could only stare at the little green icon. Surrounded by the ultimate in modern technology, linked to all the aeronautical resources of the most resourceful nation on the planet, he could do nothing. "It was very disturbing," he says, "to feel so helpless."
The news of what had happened to the Lear began to filter out to the public and to the families of the people aboard the plane. The FAA called James Watkins as soon as radio contact was lost. Watkins did not worry. He figured there was a problem with the radio. Sunjet had never had a crash. Watkins called Donna Stout and told her about the interrupted communication with air traffic control and told her not to worry. Then the FAA called Watkins again. This time it asked how much fuel had been pumped into the plane's tanks. Watkins became very worried and started to monitor the FAA's radio communications.
The media picked up the story in Washington, D.C. Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, received a tip from an Air Force source that there was "a runaway plane" cutting across America, chased by military jets. Robert Hager, NBC's aviation expert, received a tip from a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). This tip also said that Payne Stewart was aboard the plane. The other networks received other tips. The news was put on the air, announcers breaking into morning programs. CNN and MSNBC quickly switched to full-time coverage of the runaway plane. "It was a compelling story," a CNN official says. "A question you always ask about news is, Would it be the first thing I would talk about with my wife when I got home at the end of the day? That certainly would be the case here."
Hager and McIntyre, who by now also had heard a rumor that Stewart was on the plane, withheld mentioning the golfer's name on the air. Neither wanted a broadcast report to be the way the news reached Stewart's family or the other families. The first televised reports stated only that there was a runaway plane, that the Air Force was in pursuit and that the plane's windows were fogged, indicating that everyone aboard probably had died from lack of oxygen. Subsequent reports mentioned first that "a prominent person" was on the passenger list and then that "a prominent golfer" was aboard. Finally one used Stewart's name, and the dam broke. Everybody used Stewart's name.
Tracey Stewart heard the news at home. Gloria Baker, the Stewarts' administrative assistant, received a call from a friend in Chicago asking why Air Force jets were following Payne's plane. She thought it was a joke. Then other calls came, and she knew it wasn't. Baker and Tracey turned on the television. Tracey tried to call her husband on his cell phone. There was no answer.