A Brief History
On October 25, 1999, American golfing professional Payne Stewart was on a Learjet chartered to fly from Florida to Texas, when the jet apparently lost pressurization (air rapidly leaked out of the plane) causing all on board, including the pilots, to pass out. Or the jet failed to ever properly pressurize in the first place. The pilot-less jet continued on a 1500 mile flight with no one on board regaining consciousness. When the jet ran out of fuel over South Dakota, it fell uncontrolled out of the sky and crashed. All aboard the Learjet were dead, probably before the crash even occurred, most likely dying of hypoxia or lack of oxygen.
When air traffic controllers realized something was wrong with the Lear jet, US Air Force F-16 fighters were scrambled and took turns observing and flying with the doomed Learjet, reporting that the windshield was iced over and no control surfaces were moving. It is unknown if the fighters were prepared to shoot down the Learjet if it threatened a populated area. Stewart was a top notch golfer who had won 11 tournaments and 3 major tournaments. He had finished 7th in money winning the year before his death. Stewart, 42 years old when he died, was worth a respectable $23 million and had won the 1991 and 1999 US Open tournament, one of the Big 4 tournaments in professional golf that constitute “The Majors.” His other triumphs in Major Tournaments included a win at the 1989 PGA Championship and twice finishing second at the British Open.
Golf lost a colorful and well liked personality when Stewart died. Famed for his flamboyant knickers, argyle socks and Ivy caps, Stewart seemed like a blast from the past in his traditional but out of date golf wear. He was reputed to have the largest wardrobe in professional golf. Born in 1957, in Missouri, Stewart attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where of course he played golf, graduating in 1979, after which he turned professional. Payne’s father, Bill, was also a golfer and had played in the 1955 US Open.
Stewart married in 1981, a marriage that lasted until his untimely death. In 1987 he donated his entire purse from winning the Hertz Bay Hill Classic to a hospital in the name of his father who had died from cancer. Stewart actually lived adjacent to the Bay Hill golf Country Club, making it a home field win. Stewart was known as a traditionalist that really loved golf and was a consummate sportsman, earning the respect of fans and fellow players. He and his wife had 3 children, undoubtedly Payne’s proudest legacy.
While there was no criminal or civil liability for the fatal flight found against either Learjet or the operators of the airplane, the company that owned the jet went out of business as legal wrangling was taking place.
Stewart’s death came only a month after he and his teammates won the 1999 Ryder’s Cup competition, and 4 months after his triumph at the US Open. Tour players held a “Shorts Day” in his honor and played in the fashion style favored by Stewart at the Tour Championship, the tournament that immediately followed the tragic loss of their comrade. A section of highway in Missouri is named in Stewarts honor, as are several streets around the US and Canada. A year after his death pro golf created the Payne Stewart Award, recognizing the pro golfer that best epitomized the respect for golfing traditions on the course as well as charitable actions off the course. Various other memorials, statues and the like have been erected in his name, including a golf course in Missouri.
People die in all sorts of strange ways, a subject we have sometimes addressed on this website. Aircraft often play a role in these untimely and odd deaths, as is certainly true in the case of Payne Stewart. Sadly, the world of golf and the world at large lost a great golfer and a great person due to a most unlikely accident. Hopefully the crash investigation will help prevent similar future incidents and Stewart’s example will inspire young sportsmen to adhere to a high standard of conduct and sportsmanship.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you previously aware of this incident? Had you heard of Payne Stewart? What other famous athletes do you know of that died in airplane crashes? Are you a golfer? Do you watch pro golf? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Moriarty, Jim. Playing Through: Modern Golf’s Most Iconic Players and Moments. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Stewart, Tracey and Ken Abraham. Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography. B&H Publishing Group, 2013.