PGA Golfer Dies in Jet Crash

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - Professional golfer Payne Stewart is among the five victims of a fatal Lear jet crash near Mina, South Dakota after officials lost contact with the plane which apparently traveled on auto-pilot for more than 1,700 miles before running out of fuel.

The jet left Orlando, Florida bound for Dallas, Texas where Stewart was set to participate in practice rounds for the PGA's last tournament of 1999 for its top 30 money makers.

But in a bizarre set of circumstances, air traffic controllers lost radio contact with the pilot and co-pilot near Gainesville, Florida.

Federal Aviation Administration officials then contacted the U.S. Air Force when the plane's position was notably off its intended flight plan and at an inappropriate altitude, but apparently flying on auto-pilot.

The Air Force deployed an F-16 fighter jet from Tyndall, Florida to locate the aircraft. Two F-15 fighter jets from Eglin, Air Force Base in northern Florida then took over the watch. The escort duty was then relayed to two F-16s based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The scenario left law enforcement officials and the public to speculate when and where the jet would fall to the ground. The jet finally crashed in a swamp-like area near Mina, twelve miles west of Aberdeen, South Dakota. South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow said there were no survivors.

There has been no official determination of what set off the sequence of events, but preliminary speculation has centered around pressurization problems, leading some to believe that those on board may have lost consciousness before the crash.

Stewart, a 42 year-old Orlando resident, was a two-time U.S. Open champion and won 18 tournaments around the globe. He was easily distinguished by his knickers and tam-o'-shanter hat. Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open in June on the last hole in a remarkable 15-foot put, the longest putt to ever win that tournament.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem issued a statement from the PGA's Ponte Vedra Beach, FL headquarters. "It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart,'' Finchem said.

Stewart is survived by his wife, Tracey, and two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.