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Plane Crash Diaries

Episode 32 – Payne Stewart’s Learjet decompression death and missing maintenance logs

Plane Crash Diaries
Plane Crash Diaries
A listener asked me to take a closer look at the crash of a Lear jet in 1999 that was carrying golfer Payne Stewart so here we are.

Of all the crashes we’ve looked at this has to be one of the more frustrating and needs quite a bit of sleuthing. The main reason is the NTSB still has not published a final report and probably never will.

The basic facts are not in dispute – it was a case of a plane decompression at high altitude. But how it happened is another matter.

So let’s try and dig deep and discover what led to the death of one of the best known sportsmen in the United States.

The basic story goes like this.

On October 25, 1999 a Learjet 35 registration N47BA, operated by Sunjet Aviation based in Sanford, Florida departed Orlando, Florida, for Dallas, Texas, at around 0920 eastern daylight time (EDT). Radio contact with the flight was lost north of Gainesville, after air traffic control (ATC) cleared the airplane to flight level (FL) 390.

The learjet was then intercepted by several U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard aircraft as it headed in a north west direction. The military pilots flew close enough to see that the windshields of the Learjet were frosted or covered with condensation.

Later the airplane engines began spooling down, controlled flight was not possible, and the learjet stalled and spiralled to the ground, impacting an open field between the towns of Mila and Aberdeen in South Dakota just before 12h15 central daylight time on October 25th 1999.

The NTSB scrutinised the maintenance logs and found a snag reported in February 1998 that the cabin occasionally would not hold pressure at low altitudes. Maintenance checked this on the ground but could not replicate the problem, so it wasn’t fixed.

IN May 1999 Sunjet maintenance personnel were checked out as part of the Phase A1-6 inspection, which included pressurization system checks. All seemed fine once more.

But it wasn’t.

A Sunjet Aviation pilot reported to Safety Board investigators that a month later, July 22, 1999 during a flight in the very same Learjet, the pressurization system would not maintain a full pressure differential and that later the cabin altitude “started climbing well past 2,000 feet per minute” he said.

When confronted by the NTSB, the Sunjet Aviation Chief pilot denied this, saying that he hadn’t noticed any differential.

However, a July 23, 1999, Work Order discrepancy sheet 5895 noted the following: “Discrepancy: Pressurization check and operation of system.”
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