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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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Bobby Bellegarrigue was working on a dental patient when someone came into his room to tell him what had happened to his sister's plane. He left the room and walked by a lounge area where everyone was watching the television. He stopped and watched with the others in disbelief.

The first calls at Bay Hill, where the celebrity golf tournament was taking place, inquired about Arnold Palmer, who is Bay Hill's principal owner. Was Arnold on that plane? The news had said only "a prominent golfer." Palmer was the most famous golfer-pilot in the world. Officials told callers that Palmer was not on the plane. The second wave of calls asked about Stewart.

In the midst of his round at Bay Hill, Lee Janzen, a friend and rival of Stewart's, a former client of Fraley and Ardan's, heard the news and walked off the course. Mark O'Meara, a neighbor of Stewart's in Orlando, left Bay Hill, went home, got into his fishing boat and rode across Butler Chain to Pocket Lake and Stewart's house to offer Tracey his support. Jim McGovern was at home in New Jersey with his three children. He saw the news on television, listened to the grim reports and couldn't watch anymore. He took the children to a park with tears in his eyes.

The media vans arrived at Sunjet, reporters everywhere. The vans also arrived at 390 Orange Lane in Casselberry, Fla., the office tower where Leader is headquartered. Reporters staked out the lobby. Donna Stout, at home, knelt with friends from her church and prayed. There still was a glaring omission in all reports. Borland, the architect, never was mentioned.

"For a long time there was no mention of Bruce's being on the plane," Chris Cochran, Borland's friend at Golden Bear International, says. "His name apparently wasn't on the manifest, so all the early reports said there were five people on the plane, not six. People said in the office, 'Bruce isn't on that plane, is he?' I said, 'Yes he is.' " Golden Bear issued a press release saying Borland was on the plane. The release included a statement praising Borland by Ray Underwood, the pastor at Palm Beach Community Church, where Borland was a member.

At 12:13 p.m. NORAD reported that the Learjet had approximately one hour of fuel left and was on a flight path with a 320� heading, traveling mostly over sparsely populated areas. At 12:16 NORAD said it anticipated that the jet would run out of fuel in the vicinity of Pierre, S.Dak.

A public debate developed about whether the Air Force should shoot the plane out of the sky if it imperiled a large city. Callers to CNN suggested various outlandish possibilities. Why couldn't someone change the plane's direction with some kind of radio contact? Wasn't there some kind of apparatus, a net or something, that could catch the plane? Couldn't some kind of Bruce Willis action hero take charge? "People watch too many movies," McIntyre says. "They were talking about things that were impossible in real life."

The possibility of shooting down the plane was never seriously considered. None of the planes sent up as escorts were armed. One admiral in the Pentagon was quoted as saying, "You know, if this thing veers off course and heads to Chicago, we'll have some really tough decisions to make," but the plane never veered. Theoretically the order to shoot would have had to come from the White House, but the idea of a U.S. president ordering U.S. military planes to shoot down a U.S. civilian plane filled with U.S. citizens, living or dead, would be hard to sell to the U.S. public. It never has happened.

The course of the Lear might have been altered to some degree if the military pilots had tried a daring maneuver, flying close to—maybe even slightly touching—the runaway plane's wings. This tactic was used by British pilots during World War II to alter the course of German V-2 rockets heading toward London. The Germans reacted by placing explosives on the sides of the rockets. That was the end of that maneuver.

At 12:22 the first of two final pairs of F-16 escort fighters was sent airborne by the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo. At 12:54 the four Fargo jets intercepted the Lear. At 1:14 p.m. the Fargo jets reported that the Lear had started to fall.

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