MINA, S.D. (AP) -- Investigators returned today to the field
where Payne Stewart's jet crashed and began removing wreckage from
a 10-foot deep crater.
They hoped to find the valves that control the cabin pressure to
determine whether the devices failed before the plane flew 1,400
miles on autopilot and crashed. They also hoped to recover remains
of the six victims.
Medical experts, however, fear the remains may not reveal
whether the Learjet's occupants died after the aircraft suddenly
lost pressure. The plane had no flight data recorder, and the
cockpit voice recorder -- a 30-minute loop of tape that may have
been erased during the crucial first hour of Monday's flight --
hasn't been found.
The jet took off from Orlando, Fla., for Dallas and flew four
hours before running out of fuel and slamming nose-first into the
ground near Mina.
Most of the debris is embedded in mud and soil within a
10-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide crater, said Bob Francis, vice chairman
of the National Transportation Safety Board.
"It looks like the aircraft was pretty much vertical when it
hit the ground," he said Tuesday. "The ground is soft, and it
went in fairly deep. It's going to be a challenge, with the
wreckage and sorting out what's there."
NTSB investigators returned to the scene this morning to
concentrate on removing the shattered wreckage. Late this morning,
a backhoe lifted some large pieces from the crater. Investigators
planned to reassemble as much of the wreckage as possible at a
hangar at Aberdeen's airport about 15 miles away. Tissue samples
from victims' remains were recovered Tuesday for testing.
Authorities are focusing on a theory that the plane's cabin may
have suddenly depressurized, which could have caused the crew and
passengers to blackout or die. Proving that will be difficult.
"The issues obviously are what was damaged, what might have
been an issue prior to impact," Francis said. "That will be a
In the plane's last radio transmission above Gainesville, Fla.,
the pilot was instructed to climb to 39,000 feet. Planes that fly
above 12,000 feet are pressurized because the air does not contain
enough oxygen for people to breathe comfortably.
Even a videotape made by fighter pilots who chased after the
plane may yield few clues because the Learjet's windows were
frosted over in the minus-70 degree atmosphere. "The quality is
probably not going to be good enough to help us," Francis said.
Four years ago, federal regulators ordered that valves that
regulate pressure on Learjets be replaced to "prevent rapid
decompression of the airplane."
The Federal Aviation Administration also limited planes to an
altitude of 41,000 feet until the valves were replaced because of
the possibility they could fail. The FAA gave owners 18 months to
James Watkins, president of Sunjet Aviation Inc., which operated
the jet, told The Washington Post in a story published today that
the aircraft's maintenance log books showed new valves had been
installed and the plane was in compliance with FAA directives.
Francis said NTSB investigators in Florida were examining the
maintenance records of the Learjet. Watkins said the plane had been
inspected before it took off and four other times in the past week.
The pressure inside an aircraft cabin is determined by a careful
regulation of air flowing in and out. In the case of Stewart's
plane, air was siphoned off the two jet engines, adjusted for the
proper temperature and then piped into the cabin.
Valves at the front and rear of an aircraft automatically open
and close as the altitude increases or decreases, maintaining a
survivable pressure for the people on board.
Francis said investigators hoped to recover the voice recorder,
although he admitted it may be of little help even if it did
survive the crash.
The 23-year-old, eight-passenger plane had logged more than
10,000 hours of flight time but had no history of serious
mechanical problems, according to the FAA.
Also killed were Stewart's agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan,
the two pilots, Michael Kling, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27,
and Bruce Borland, 40, one of Jack Nicklaus' golf course designers.