Nov. 28 -- After a yearlong investigation, investigators say they are unable to pinpoint exactly what caused the crash that killed golf champion Payne Stewart and five others last year.
In a final report released today, the National Transportation Safety Board said the probable cause of the crash was the loss of consciousness of two pilots caused by a loss in cabin pressure and a failure to get emergency oxygen. However, NTSB officials were unable to determine what caused the cabin pressure to drop. The investigation, the NTSB Chairman Jim Hall noted, was hampered the extensive damage to the plane and the fact that it was not equipped with a flight data recorder.
“The airplane was not equipped with a flight data recorder, an invaluable tool in most major investigations, and it had only a 30-minute cockpit voice recorder,” Hall said.
Hall noted that Payne’s Learjet 35 hit the ground at near supersonic speed and at an extremely steep angle, leaving nearly none of the plane’s components intact. The board also could not determine whether an emergency oxygen bottle had been as fully charged as it should have been or whether the pilots had lost their capability to perform before or after donning oxygen masks.
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Stewart’s plane crashed on Oct. 25, 1999, near Aberdeen, S.D. It began veering off courseshortly after takeoff from Orlando, Fla., en route to Dallas. Air traffic control lost radio contact with pilots 25 minutes after takeoff, when the plane was climbing through 37,000 feetand located northwest of Gainesville, Fla. The business jet continued to head northwest for more than four hours until apparently running out of fuel.
Investigators told the NTSB the Air Force and the Air National Guard tried to intercept the jet during its fatal flight. Military pilots said the windshield of the jet appeared to be frosted or covered with condensation and that they could not see inside the crew’s cabin. They did not notice any other structural damage or abnormality to the plane.