James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.
Payne Stewart Plane Crash
It was a morning like any other morning. Or so it seemed. The weather was perfect in Orlando that day; October 25, 1999. I was in my office at SunJet Aviation, when one of my pilots, Captain Michael Kling, a retired United States Air Force Major, came in and sat down. We had a cup of coffee and he told me of his upcoming flight to Haiti. When he was off duty, he would fly a big ole rickety cargo plane full of medicine, clothes and food, pro bono, for a Christian mission he was involved in. But today, Captain Kling was to pick up a regular client of ours 12 minutes away at the Orlando International Airport, and take them to Dallas in one of the Learjet 35s we operated. The client was Leader Enterprises, an Orlando sports agency.
The CEO of Leader Enterprises was Robert Fraley, 46, who was a friend of my brother, Paul. Fraley always asked for Paul to be his Captain but Paul was in Texas that day for flight training. When we would fly Leader Enterprises they would invariably have famous sports figures on board such as Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Orel Hershiser, Frank Thomas or Paul Azinger. Since it was private jet charter, we would not have a passenger list and so did not know who it would be today.
Captain Kling was famous in our company for his meticulous preflight preparations. His copilot for this trip was Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27. She was a free spirit who was very popular with our clients. I saw them off that day and off they went—into the wild blue yonder. They flew to OIA, picked up our clients, and headed for Dallas.
Payne Stewart Plane Crash
My phone rang maybe an hour later and it was Air Traffic Control. The man on the phone asked me if I knew one of my planes was in trouble. I did not. United States airspace is carved up into airways—invisible roads—and our Learjet was supposed to make a sharp left turn above Cross City, Florida, but instead kept going straight ahead. By the time they called me it was nearing Memphis and my crew was not responding to repeated radio calls from ATC. Shortly thereafter, another call came from the Air Force, who told me they had scrambled an F-16 up there to make visual contact with my aircraft, and reported that the windows were iced over.
I called my father, a 35 year aviator who was in California, and when I told him this news he said quietly, "They're all dead." I was taken aback by this and said, "Don't say that, Dad!" He replied, "Son, if they are flying at 40,000 feet with the windows iced over they have all frozen to death."
An employee of mine burst into my office and exclaimed, "N47BA is on television! Something's wrong." I went to the conference room and there it was: N47BA flying beautifully in a straight line on autopilot. The television announcer said one of the passengers was one of the most famous and beloved golfers in the world, Payne Stewart.
Along with the rest of America, we watched helplessly as, four hours into flight, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed at 600 miles-per-hour into a field near Aberdeen, South Dakota. I was told that the frozen bodies would shatter like glass on impact.
My employees, men and women alike, were weeping. Someone asked, "James, what are you going to do about all those people out front?" I looked and there were dozens of media people crammed right against our front doors. No one could get out. So, I went out there. I don't remember what I said. I have videos of it around here somewhere on VHS.
Six people died that day. The two pilots were like a part of our family. Besides Payne Stewart and Robert Fraley, on board were sports agent Van Arden, 45, and golf course designer Bruce Borland, 40.
Within a few days the Orlando Sentinel and the local television stations started running daily stories that our company was at fault through gross negligence. The stories all featured a disgruntled ex-employee. This person went to the media, claiming he was one of our charter pilots, with the story that he had first-hand knowledge that our pilot training and aircraft maintenance were purposefully negligent. Needless to say this was front page news.
I was inundated with interview requests. Our insurance company had hired a Washington, D.C., legal firm to represent us and they instructed me not to say a word to anyone. My feeling was "Every time I see somebody on TV accused of some crime and they say 'no comment' I think they must be guilty." I accepted the interviews from all comers. I got phone calls from people I hadn't seen in years to tell me they had watched me on the network news. I always wanted to be on TV. But not this way.
This ex-employee had worked for us alright—as a handyman and errand runner. He was my dad's next door neighbor. He had quite a few children; was broke and out of work when my dad met him. He had spent $50,000 for pilot training with the company next door, Com Air, but had been unable to find a flying job. My dad used to put sacks of groceries on his porch. Finally, my dad came to me one day and said, "Son, I've got this neighbor and we have to give him a job."
No good deed goes unpunished. Dad didn't think he would make it as a charter pilot because of his comportment. We did let him sit in the copilot's seat on some missions—not as a charter pilot but when we would fly aircraft owners in their own planes. He was never a charter pilot for us. Owners knew we would try out copilots on them before deciding if they had a future in charter. In charter, your clients are often famous and always wealthy. This requires a pilot be an individual with some class.
This fellow always had a goofy look on his face, wore pants that came halfway up his shins, would show up for duty with big stains on his pilot's shirt, say silly things to the passengers, forget their luggage at the airport. A few months before this tragic accident I told him he had no future with us as a pilot. We made a new position for him as a classroom teacher at our ground school. A few weeks before the accident, he quit to take a job as a charter pilot with a small competitor. He told them he was a charter pilot for us. That's why they hired him.
Now here he was on television saying we cut corners on aircraft maintenance. The problem is, he had not once stepped foot in our shop—which is a controlled area—and knew nothing about maintenance. His testimony was accepted at face value by the media and made him a star on the nightly news.
There was another problem with his theories. Our company did not own any airplanes. We operated aircraft that were owned by individuals and corporations on a leaseback agreement, meaning that we would use them for charter if not in use by the owner, to generate cost-offsetting revenue for the owner. In effect, this means that the more maintenance we performed in our shop the more money we made. We were paid for all work accomplished. And never once have I ever had an owner ask to defer required maintenance, "Just put off installing that control valve until I take my wife and kids skiing this weekend."
Also, I used these airplanes myself occasionally. The Learjet in the Payne Stewart plane crash was an aircraft that one week earlier I had flown in, with my children and grandmother, to a family reunion. I would have gotten on the fatal flight if I had been invited. Anybody in our company would have. We would never put anyone in harm's way.
We fully participated in the NTSB investigation, as did the manufacturer, Learjet. At the investigatory meetings it soon became apparent that Learjet wanted to squarely fix blame on our company; and that the NTSB considered them the experts. Learjet engineers would come up with one part after another and say, "SunJet probably didn't replace this part." Luckily we had our own experts there: the top men from our shop. Our guys proved the experts wrong about every theory they came up with. It was leaked to the press that a valve had been changed the day before the accident and it caused the crash. The valve still worked after the crash! The real cause of the Payne Stewart plane crash was never found.
Payne Stewart Plane Crash
Sports Illustrated ran a long story about the crash, in which this appeared: James Watkins says, "I suppose there are two major theories. One is that something went wrong with the oxygen system and everybody fell asleep. I don't buy that. Six people were on that plane, different sizes, and different physiologies. The pilots were a man and a woman. Would everybody pass out at the exact same time? Wouldn't somebody take longer and react when he saw something happening? Not a button was pushed. Not a dial was turned. If you were in the cockpit, even if you were dying, wouldn't you have reached out and grabbed something, anything? I think you would, except...."
"And here's the second theory: that something violent happened, like the bulkhead splitting open. That's a rare situation. It's maybe happened five or six times in the history of aviation. They say you have 10 seconds to react when it happens, but what if you're incapacitated immediately? Mike Kling gave classes in the Air Force on how to handle oxygen deprivation. I have to think it was something violent."
"You get some strange calls after something like this," Watkins says. "I got one call, a voice saying the Chinese government had shot the plane down with a laser because Payne Stewart did an imitation of a Chinese person a few weeks earlier that was reported in the press and got him in trouble. Another voice said that one of the passengers had shot and killed everybody and then committed suicide. A worker where the passengers were picked up said one of them loaded a tub of fish on dry ice and it might have put off vapors that killed everybody. Crazy stuff."
April 11 of 2000 I noticed television trucks gathered outside our business. We were surprisingly still open even though people I knew in the industry had warned me that no small company overcomes a high profile fatal accident such as this. All of a sudden here comes the FBI with guns drawn and attack dogs. They rounded up all of my employees into our long hallway and would not allow any of them to make a phone call, answer the phone, or use the bathroom. My Director of Maintenance, a brave soul, snuck a phone call to our attorney who, a few hours later, got the FBI to leave our people alone. But they were shaken by the experience, especially our office ladies.
The FBI confiscated our computers; every piece of paper at our premises including personal letters and photographs from desks and toolboxes; and all of the records and logbooks for the aircraft present and out flying. For those not familiar with aviation, this is a big problem. An aircraft cannot legally fly without its maintenance records present at all times for FAA inspection. All planes were de facto grounded. An FBI spokesman addressed the mob of media and said the FBI suspected criminal activity related to the Payne Stewart plane crash. This was now a criminal case. And there was my mug all over the news again as the suspected killer of Payne Stewart.
I'll tell you what is wrong with this picture. In aviation, the FAA is entitled to enter your premises anytime they want and demand to see anything they want without appointment. In other words, why conduct a raid to snatch documents that are open for inspection at all times? And that had been pored over already by the NTSB? Our attorney explained that it was a publicity stunt, ordered by someone high up in government—possibly the White House—who was determined to put us out of business. He said the FBI had alerted the media first—a rarity.
In our shop were the logbooks and maintenance records of 42 aircraft. Besides the fleet we managed, we were an FAA approved maintenance Repair Station that serviced a hundred outside customers. Needless to say, these folks were steamed that their records had been taken when they could not possibly have any involvement with the accident.
The NTSB was shocked at the actions of the FBI. We had spent untold amounts of time and money assisting them with their investigation, which found no wrongdoing on our part. The Orlando Sentinel reported "Owner of SunJet equates FBI raid with Waco." What I said was, "At least they didn't burn the place down or kill anybody."
We sold the remnant of our firm a few months later to one of our customers. He was going to keep me on as an employee but was told by the FAA, based on nothing, "If Watkins is still there, you'll never get approved for your licenses." So, I stepped aside. SunJet Aviation was history.