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Investigators digging for clues in Learjet crash

Heavy equipment is used to dig for wreckage of the Learjet in hope of finding clues to the cause of the crash  

October 27, 1999
Web posted at: 1:51 p.m. EDT (1751 GMT)

In this story:

Air pressure valves replaced, as ordered

Plane was not for sale when it crashed

Memorial alters golf schedule


MINA, South Dakota (CNN) -- Heavy equipment was brought to a South Dakota cow pasture Wednesday to dig deeper for wreckage -- and clues -- from the crash of a runaway Learjet that killed six people, including golf champion Payne Stewart.

Payne Stewart, golf champion, husband and father
Learjet crash
VideoCNN goes to this week's golf tournament, where a somber mood prevails (October 27)
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Listen as CNNSI's Jim Huber looks at the career of Payne Stewart
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From miles up in the air, the plane plunged to the ground Monday, burrowing into the field outside the town of Mina after flying uncontrolled from Florida, nearly 1,500 miles away.

The impact "led to a virtual shattering of the aircraft," most of it in a crater 30 to 40 feet wide and 10 feet deep, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis told CNN.

"Obviously, when you start looking for evidence, you're looking at very small parts and the analysis is a lot harder, and the recovery is a lot harder," he told CNN.

"We anticipate starting to work in the crater with heavy equipment and that will be some slow going... because of ... how deep it is and the fact that you have everything mixed in with the earth."

Owner: Air pressure valves replaced, as ordered

Investigators are looking into the possibility that the plane lost cabin pressure shortly after takeoff from Orlando, causing the occupants to pass out -- or die -- long before the wayward jet, out of fuel, crashed four hours later.

Francis said it will probably be several days before experts are able to take a look at seals designed to keep the cabin of the 23-year-old aircraft pressurized, assuming enough of them can be recovered.

Sunjet Aviation, the company that owns the Learjet 35, told investigators that valves controlling air pressure inside the plane were replaced four years ago in accordance with a Federal Aviation Administration directive.

The 1995 order tells Learjet owners to replace valves "to prevent rapid decompression of the airplane due to cracking and subsequent failure of certain outflow/safety valves."

"We will never forget you," reads a sign left by Stewart's fans at the Champions Golf Club in Houston. The golfer was to have played in a tournament there this weekend.  

Francis said the temperature in the cabin, if the plane did decompress, would have been minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 56 C) at the 45,000-foot (13,720-meter) altitude it reached, which humans could not survive.

He said investigators did not yet know if the victims were wearing oxygen masks.

Brad Randall, an accident investigator for South Dakota, said a full range of toxicological tests could probably be run on human tissue taken from the wreckage but it would be impossible to prove whether Stewart and the others were dead of oxygen deprivation long before the crash.

"There really are no special tests to address the question of hypoxia. They just don't exist," he said Tuesday.

Plane was not for sale when it crashed

 Crash victims
• Van Ardan, sports agent

• Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27, co-pilot

• Bruce Borland, 40, golf course designer

• Robert Fraley, 46, sports agent

Michael Kling, 43, pilot

• Payne Stewart, 42, professional golfer

The plane did not have a flight data recorder, a device which monitors the position and movements of the plane. A cockpit voice recorder has yet to be found, but even if it turns up, it may not yield much information, Francis said.

"It runs on a cycle of a half an hour," said Francis. "Given what happened. It is unlikely we will be getting voice information from the (cockpit voice recorder)."

Francis said some parts of the plane, including the vertical stabilizer, the engines and at least one of the wings, appear to have survived intact.

Sunjet President James Watkins said the Learjet was inspected before the flight and at three other times in recent days.

Earlier this week, Sunjet's Web site listed the plane as being for sale, Watkins said that information had not been updated and that the jet was not on the market at the time of the crash.

The information about the plane is no longer listed on Sunjet's Web site.

Memorial alters golf schedule

Earlier this week, the Web site for Sunjet Aviation, which owned the Learjet, had listed the plane as being for sale. The company's president told CNN the information on the Web site was out of date.  

Stewart, 42, was one of golf's most recognizable players because of his traditional knickers and tam-o'-shanter hat. The Florida resident's latest victory was in June when he won his second U.S. Open title.

Competition in two PGA Tour events will be postponed Friday because of a memorial service scheduled at the First Baptist Church of Orlando.

The Tour Championship in Houston, a $5 million event for the top 30 players on the money list, will start as scheduled on Thursday after a separate memorial to be held at the first tee. Afterward, competitors will play 27 holes of golf instead of the traditional round of 18.

Another 27 holes will be played on Saturday, with an 18-hole final round on Sunday.

In the Southern Farm Bureau Classic at Madison, Mississippi, the tournament will be just 54 holes with rounds scheduled for Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Correspondents Tony Clark and Jeff Flock contributed to this report.

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PGA Tour
  • Payne Stewart profile
National Transportation Safety Board
Oklahoma Air Guard
Bombardier Learjet
National Business Aviation Association, Inc.
U. S. Air Force
FAA - Federal Aviation Administration
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