In 1999, a plane took a strange course across the United States. It had climbed to its designated altitude as usual, but instead of heading towards Dallas, it began flying straight over the US towards Canada. No contact could be made with the crew, and military jets scrambled to intercept the phantom flight, fearing the worst. What no one at the time knew, though, was that everyone on board was either unconscious or dead.
A Learjet 35, registered as N47BA, was a private jet carrying some very important people. Taking off from Orlando, Florida, on October 25, 1999, passengers included PGA legend Payne Stewart, former football quarterback Robert Fraley, president of Stewart’s golf agency Van Arden, and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect from the Jack Nicklaus Company. There were also the two pilots, Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, for a routine trip to Dallas, Texas. In total, six people were onboard the small plane, which was geared up for the three-hour trip with ease.
They took off as usual and began climbing to a preapproved altitude of 11,900 meters (39,000 feet) above sea level. At 7,000 m (23,000 feet), radio contact was acknowledged by the pilot, indicating everything was normal – this was the last contact from Learjet 35.
Six minutes later, contact with the plane was attempted again, but with no answer. Multiple subsequent attempts in the next few minutes sent alarm bells ringing, and it was time for the Air Force to get involved.
Luckily, an F-16 was in the area and flew to intercept the aircraft to perform a visual inspection. Colonel Olson concluded that the plane had no visible damage and was flying in a straight course, but could not see into the cockpit to identify the crew – the windows were opaque, as if covered by condensation or ice.
Two more interceptions later, and concerns grew. There was speculation that the Pentagon considered shooting it down in case the plane landed in a populated area, but they disputed that and stated it was never an option.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, however, later admitted in his memoirs that, if Learjet 35 were to enter Canadian airspace, there was authorization for it to be shot down for fears it could land in the city of Winnipeg.
Carrying just four and a half hours' worth of fuel, the plane soon ran out and descended in a spiral. Witnesses noted it was completely out of control, hurtling towards the ground at near supersonic speeds. It crashed on flat ground in South Dakota, with the impact of the crash annihilating the entire plane and leaving a large crater.
So, what happened to the crew? In the brief minutes after the last contact, it was determined that a depressurization of the cabin occurred. It is unclear why or how quickly it occurred, but the crew did not manage to get supplemental oxygen in enough quantities to stop them from losing consciousness due to hypoxia.
In both gradual and rapid depressurization events, people within the plane experience cognitive impairments and loss of consciousness as oxygen decreases within the cabin, which is what likely incapacitated the pilots in this case. From there, the autopilot maintained the altitude and a straight course, until it could do so no more. For almost four hours, the plane flew with no one at the wheel.
To this day, the cause of the depressurization is unknown, but black box recordings indicate no one was awake in the last minutes of the flight. It is possible all crew members were unconscious or deceased shortly after their last contact.
A memorial now stands at the crash site, dedicated to the victims of the tragic accident. Stewart was later inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and subsequent memorials have been dedicated to the influential passengers.
Tragically, we will never know quite what happened aboard Learjet 35.