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FAA: Stewart crash pilots' records falsified
A SunJet Aviation manager falsified training records for the pilots who flew the Learjet that crashed in a South Dakota pasture in 1999, killing golfer Payne Stewart and everyone on board, a Federal Aviation Administration attorney said Tuesday.
Raymond Veatch told a federal administrative judge that James Watkins Sr. filed false records about the amount of time he had spent training pilot Michael Kling and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue.
The revelation came on the first day of a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into whether Watkins, chief pilot for Sanford-based SunJet and father of the company president at the time of the crash, should permanently lose his license to fly.
It was the first time the government has publicly accused anyone of wrongdoing in connection with the Stewart crash on Oct. 25, 1999. The FBI and federal Department of Transportation are still investigating. The families of Stewart and three other victims also have sued the plane's owner and operator.
As part of the criminal investigation, dozens of agents last April seized virtually all of the company's business records at its headquarters at Orlando Sanford Airport.
Those records have brought the Washington-based judge and attorneys to Sanford. Still, even investigators agree, a complete explanation of what happened may never be found.
Had the plane set down neatly on a runway, the experts could examine all the likely explanations of what went wrong. But the jet was destroyed, leaving little for investigators except the company records.
Watkins' son, James Watkins Jr., has repeatedly said SunJet, which has since been sold, was not responsible for the crash.
Administrative Judge William Pope on Tuesday asked Veatch, "Did Mr. Watkins [Sr.] have anything to do with the crash of the aircraft in which a professional golfer was killed?"
"He falsified documents," Veatch said. "He had been complicit in some of the wrongdoing by SunJet."
The FAA, however, does not plan to present evidence related to the crash or to Kling and Bellegarrigue at this hearing, which is to continue today.
Instead, it will present evidence that Watkins falsified the training records of six other pilots and should be permanently grounded, Veatch said.
SunJet operated the twin-engine jet and employed the crew that set out from Sanford on Oct. 25, 1999, for Dallas, carrying Stewart and five others.
The NTSB has concluded the cabin lost air pressure, something that likely caused the crew and passengers to pass out.
The plane flew on autopilot for several hours. Military jets followed it for three hours, seeing no signs of life.
Aviation experts say that fully trained pilots should be able to handle an emergency cabin depressurization if they had followed detailed preflight instructions, including making sure backup oxygen was open and the system was working.
Kling, 42, a former Air Force pilot, had thousands of hours of experience. However, he had received his government certification to fly the Learjet only about a month before the crash.
Bellegarrigue, 27, had been cleared to fly Learjets six months before the crash.
Robert Leventhal, Watkins' defense attorney, argued that Kling and Bellegarrigue received the proper training from Watkins.
"Those pilots were exceptionally well-trained," he said.
Allegations that he falsified their training records "is a pile of baloney. That's an attempt to pile all the blame on somebody," Leventhal said.
Watkins would not answer reporters' questions Tuesday.
But when the defense begins its case -- probably next month -- he will testify that the training sessions in dispute took place. So will the six pilots, defense attorney David McDonald said.