WASHINGTON (AP) -- Air Force pilots tracking the Learjet that
flew uncontrolled for 1,400 miles before crashing in South Dakota
could tell the plane was not headed toward a heavily populated
area, and so did not have to consider shooting it down, Pentagon
"It never was an issue," Kenneth Bacon, spokesman for Defense
Secretary William Cohen, said Monday.
Professional golfer Payne Stewart was among six people believed
to be aboard the business jet. All were killed when the plane
nose-dived into a farm field in northeastern South Dakota.
Asked whether downing the Learjet might have become an option if
the plane, which was believed to be on autopilot with no radio
communication, had headed toward a major city, Bacon said: "It
never reached that point."
Several Air Force and Air National Guard fighter jets, plus an
AWACS radar control plane, were used to help the Federal Aviation
Administration track the Learjet and estimate when it would run out
They included F-15s from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., F-16s
from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Tulsa, Okla., and Fargo, N.D., and
an AWACS plane on a training mission north of Chicago, Bacon said.
Two armed Air Force F-16 air defense fighters were placed on
alert at Fargo just moments before the Learjet crashed, but they
were never ordered to take off, Bacon said.
"The main issue was figuring out where it was going," Bacon
said. Once it was determined that the Learjet was following a
consistent path north toward the Dakotas, "We didn't have to deal
with other options."
At 12:16 p.m. EDT, about an hour before the Learjet crashed,
military officials estimated the plane had about an hour of fuel
remaining and could make it to the vicinity of Pierre, S.D.,
according to an Air Force chronology of the incident. At 1:16 p.m.
an F-16 reported seeing the plane "spiraling through clouds."
Another Pentagon official said it was theoretically possible
that an Air Force plane could have attempted to alter the Learjet's
course, if necessary, by flying close enough to change the air flow
beneath or above its wings. In any event, the military was not
asked to suggest options, officials said.
"In this case it is impossible to imagine that the Air Force
would have shot down the plane because it wasn't necessary to do,"
If a shootdown had come into consideration, it would have been
decided at a level of authority higher than the commander in chief
of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is
responsible for the air defense of the United States and Canada,
Bacon said. He did not say who would make such a decision.