October 25 marks the 10th anniversary of an event that shocked the worlds of aviation and golf when one of the game’s greats–Payne Stewart–lost his life after the Learjet in which he was traveling suffered a loss of pressurization during a flight from Orlando to Dallas. The NBAA held that year’s convention in Atlanta less than two weeks before that tragic day, when Stewart and five others aboard the Learjet 35 fell unconscious from the effects of hypoxia about 15 minutes after departing Orlando International Airport. They may have perished by the time the airplane finally crashed four hours later in a field near Aberdeen, S.D.
Only a month earlier Stewart had made one of his last public appearances in a stirring come-from-behind U.S. win in the 1999 Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass., and only four months earlier won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
Known not only for his golfing prowess but also for his signature fashion sense (Stewart wore ivy caps and a cross between plus-four trousers and knickers–a throwback to golf’s early days), Stewart collected 24 professional wins, including 13 PGA tour victories, before his death at the age of 42.
The final report on the accident by the NTSB showed that the airplane had undergone maintenance related to cabin pressure several times in the months leading to the accident. However, the Safety Board failed to determine whether a common problem led to the need for the parts replacements and repairs.
Stewart’s widow and their two children and the family of the golfer’s agent, Robert Fraley, who also died in the accident, sued the operator of the Learjet, Sunjet Aviation, and its owner, JetShares One, for $200 million. The case went to trial in June 2005 in federal court in Orlando, where jurors acquitted the defendants of responsibility for the crash. In their verdict, the jurors also found that Bombardier bore no liability due to negligence in the design or manufacture of the airplane.