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Crash Mysteries: Two Mysterious Air Tragedies That Claimed Sports Figures

Crash site of Learjet carrying golfer Payne Stewart and five others. Credit: National Transportation Safety Board.
Photo by: Laurent Errera
Photo by: Laurent Errera

The two-year anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a grim reminder that the wonder of flight sometimes turns into mystery.

From Amelia Earhart to MH370, Earth and its oceans can swallow aircraft and leave few clues. No matter the technology or how large the aircraft, it’s easy to get lost on this planet.

Earlier this week, the odd story of a pilot-less Air Force jet crash landing itself brought to mind two instances of aircraft with disabled pilots – and apparently on auto pilot – flying to their demise. Both tragedies involved sports figures.

Payne Stewart, winner of three majors – the 1989 PGA and the U.S. Open in 1991 and 1999 – died in October of 1999. Stewart was one of six people on a Learjet that was scheduled to fly from Orlando, Fla., to Houston with a stop in Dallas.

Just west of Gainesville, Fla., air traffic controllers received its last communication from the plane. The investigation concluded that a lack of cabin pressurization led to the occupants dying from hypoxia. The plane was escorted by F-16s, who observed the plane’s windows were frosted – another indication of depressurization. After nearly four hours of flight, the plane ran out of fuel. Its spiraling descent almost reached supersonic speed before it crashed in South Dakota.

Bo Rein was hired to coach LSU in late 1979. He had been a successful coach at North Carolina State and was taking over for legendary coach Charlie McLendon. Rein had been a noted athlete at Ohio State, starring in football and basketball.

His tenure lasted 42 days.

On Jan. 10, 1980, Rein and pilot Lewis Benscotter left Shreveport, La., for Baton Rouge in a Cessna 411 Conquest, a twin-turboprop. Soon after takeoff for what would have been a 40-minute flight, Benscotter was granted a course change to avoid a line of thunderstorms.

That was the last contact from the plane. Again, the speculation is that the plane lost pressure and the two occupants died of hypoxia. The planed climbed to 41,600 feet – 6,600 feet above its maximum ceiling. The plane continued to fly east, passing over Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina before crashing in the Atlantic Ocean. The Bodies of Rein and Benscotter were never recovered.

The spooky aspect of this tragedy is that the ill-fated flight path came within a few miles of passing over Raleigh, N.C., where Rein’s family was still living.


Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.

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