private jet
Chantel Brink
Chantel Brink
April 9, 2024 ·  5 min read

N47BA: The Plane That Flew While Everyone Inside Was Likely Dead

In 1999, an incident unfolded as an aircraft known as the Learjet 35 took an odd path across the expanse of the United States. Initially, flight N47BA was reaching its designated altitude in customary fashion when the plane changed its expected course towards Dallas. It started a direct path over the United States, ultimately heading toward Canada.

Alarming as it was, all attempts to contact the crew proved futile. Thus, military fighter jets were deployed in a frantic mission to intercept the flight. It was mostly driven by dread of the worst possible outcome. However, at the time, not known to anyone, a scary truth played out. The occupants aboard the aircraft were either unconscious or dead.

The aircraft in question was a privately owned Learjet 35, registered as N47BA. On the 25th of October, 1999, it started its journey from Orlando, Florida. Among the passengers on board were well known figures, including Payne Stewart, a legendary PGA golfer; Robert Fraley, a former football quarterback, Van Arden, the president of Stewart’s golf agency; and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect with the Jack Nicklaus Company.

Accompanying them were the two pilots. Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue were tasked with the routine trip to Dallas, Texas. Consequently, a total of six individuals were aboard this compact aircraft. One who was experienced enough to pilot the three-hour voyage with utmost ease.

The Learjet 35 departed as per usual that day

Following the general departure procedures, the aircraft commenced its ascent towards an approved altitude of 39,000 feet above sea level. At an altitude of 23,000 feet, the pilot made radio contact, letting control know that all was going just as expected. Regrettably, this turned out to be the final communication received from the Learjet 35.

Six minutes elapsed, and further attempts to make contact with the plane yielded no response. The repeated unsuccessful attempts to make communication triggered a sense of urgency, prompting the involvement of the Air Force.

Fortunately, an F-16 fighter jet happened to be in the vicinity and was tasked to intercept the aircraft for a visual inspection. Colonel Olson, piloting the F-16, noted that the aircraft exhibited no signs of damage and was on a steady course. However, due to the opaque condition of the cockpit windows, resembling either condensation or ice covering, it was impossible to properly identify the occupants within the aircraft.

Concerned that something was terribly wrong on flight N47BA, drastic measures were considered

Two additional interceptions took place as the situation unfolded, intensifying the prevailing concerns. Speculation arose about the possibility of the Pentagon resorting to shooting down the aircraft. This should it approach a populated area, was under deliberation. However, such ideas were subsequently refuted, with official statements denying that this course of action was ever considered.

Interestingly, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acknowledged a different perspective in his memoirs. He noted that if the Learjet 35 were to intrude into Canadian airspace, authorization had been granted to employ lethal force. Fair, with the fear being that the plane might attempt to land in the city of Winnipeg.

Read: Flight attendant, 24, dies suddenly moments after plane lands at airport

And that’s when the Learjet 35 went down FAST

With only about four and a half hours’ worth of fuel onboard, the aircraft faced a soon-to-be depletion of its energy reserves. Before long, the plane reached a critical point where its fuel was exhausted. Thus compelling a rapid descent in a spiraling motion.

Eyewitness accounts describe the aircraft as completely uncontrollable, hurtling towards the ground at near supersonic velocities. Tragically, flight N47BA crashed onto a level terrain in South Dakota, resulting in a devastating impact that destroyed the entire aircraft and left behind a huge crater as a grim testament to the catastrophic event.

So what truly happened on flight N47BA?

In the aftermath of the incident, the fate of the crew becomes apparent. In the brief moments following the last contact, it was determined that a sudden loss of cabin pressure had taken place. The exact cause and the speed at which it occurred remain unclear. However, the crew was unable to access an adequate supply of supplemental oxygen, resulting in the onset of hypoxia-induced unconsciousness.

Both gradual and rapid decompression events lead to cognitive impairment and loss of consciousness as the oxygen levels within the cabin diminish. It is highly likely that such circumstances incapacitated the pilots in this particular case. Subsequently, the aircraft’s autopilot system maintained the set altitude and a straight trajectory until it could no longer function.

For nearly four hours, the Learjet 35 continued to fly without any human intervention

The cause of the depressurization remains unknown to this day, as the black box recordings offer no insights into the events. However, it is evident that no one was awake in the final minutes of the flight. Suggesting that all crew members were either unconscious or deceased shortly after the last communication.

In memory of the victims of this tragic flight N47BA accident, a memorial has been erected at the crash site. Payne Stewart, one of the notable passengers, was later honored by his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. And subsequent memorials have been established to commemorate the influential individuals on board. Regrettably, the precise details of what occurred aboard the Learjet 35 may forever remain uncertain and speculative.

Not the only Learjet to go down, a similar incident occurred in East County

While the official report does not provide a definitive conclusion regarding the cause and circumstances of the crash on December 27, 2021, it does support previous speculation put forth by an aviation expert. The report suggests that the Learjet 35 business jet crashed during an attempt to execute a challenging maneuver at a low altitude. Further complicated by the cloudy and nighttime conditions prevailing at the time.

According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, the victims of the crash were identified as pilots Douglas James Grande, aged 42, and Julian Jorge Bugaj, aged 67. Along with nurses Christina “Tina” Elizabeth Ward, aged 52, and Laurie Rose Gentz, aged 68.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report reveals that an examination of the crash site indicated that the aircraft struck a series of power lines just before impacting Pepper Drive. Which is located west of North Second Street in the Bostonia neighborhood, situated between El Cajon and Lakeside. The NTSB further stated that the crash occurred approximately 1.6 miles east of Gillespie Field. A local airport in the region.

Keep Reading: Flying is scary for most but this pilot had a life-changing experience at 23,000 feet in the sky.


  1. N47BA: The Plane That Flew While Everyone Inside Was Likely Dead.” IFLS. Jack Dunhill. May 22, 2023
  2. NTSB report sheds new light on Learjet crash that killed 4 in East County.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. Alex Riggins. Jan 11, 2022