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Pentagon never considered downing Stewart's Learjet

President would have to make decision

Officials calculated early in the flight that Stewart's plane would crash in a sparsely populated region; therefore no drastic action was required  

October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 8:27 p.m. EDT (0027 GMT)

In this story:

Pentagon monitored flight

'Really tough decisions'

Pentagon rules on 'Derelict Airborne Objects'


From CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The unusual circumstances surrounding the doomed flight of a private Learjet that crashed and killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five others has prompted questions about whether the U.S. military is prepared to shoot down a runaway plane if it were headed for a highly-populated area.

That scenario, while possible, it highly unlikely, according to the Pentagon.

For the Air Force to shoot down an unarmed civilian plane, it would require circumstances even more dire, than those surrounding the crash of Stewart's jet.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre looks at the military's regulations for civilian aircraft shoot down
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"We would take almost any reasonable action before reaching a point of having to make a decision about destroying an American plane over American air space," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said.

Pentagon monitored flight

Several Air Force and Air National Guard fighter jets, plus an AWACS radar control plane, helped the Federal Aviation Administration track the runaway Learjet and estimate when it would run out of fuel.

And officers on the Joint Chiefs were monitoring the Learjet on radar screens inside the Pentagon's National Military Command Center.

Two armed Air Force F-16 air defense fighters were placed on alert at Fargo just moments before the Learjet crashed, but they were never ordered to take off, Bacon said.

"The main issue was figuring out where it was going," Bacon said. Once it was determined that the Learjet was following a consistent path north toward the Dakotas, "We didn't have to deal with other options."

'Really tough decisions'

In this graphic illustration a jet attempts to re-direct a plane by using air pressure to nudge its wing and alter its course  

But even if an unguided plane were on a collision course with the center of a major city, military planes could not take aim and pull the trigger unless they received permission from the White House because only the president has the authority to order a civilian aircraft shot down.

"If the president's advisors had advised him that this airplane was a threat to either the aviation system, our national security, or populations on the ground, they might have been justified to make that kind of a decision," said Susan Coughlin, an aviation analyst for CNN.

The Pentagon insists it never came to that, but a senior advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff did raise the question.

"Admiral Fry, or someone working with him, said, 'You know, if this thing suddenly veers off course and heads to Chicago, we'll have some really tough decisions to make,'" Bacon recounted.

Part of that tough decision would be to give the order knowing that there could be casualties on the ground from falling debris.

Pentagon rules on ' Derelict Airborne Objects'

Expert say there is no good way to divert a pilot-less plane.

In theory, a chase plane might attempt a risky maneuver by moving under the wayward plane and using air pressure to nudge its wing and alter its course.

But if the auto-pilot remained engaged, the plane might simply resume its previous flight path.

An air-to-air rescue -- while a staple of Hollywood thrillers such as the movie "Executive Decision" -- is implausible in real life.

"What they are seeing in Hollywood movies is lot of very sophisticated animation," said Coughlin.

The U.S. military has never shot down a civilian plane to prevent it from crashing in a populated area, and Pentagon officials believe there is only the remotest chance they will have to give that order in the future.

Bacon noted Tuesday that during the drama Monday, Navy Vice Adm. Herb Browne, the deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, consulted the Pentagon's written "Instructions For Destruction of Derelict Airborne Objects."

The instructions, dated July 31, 1997, make no explicit reference to shooting down manned aircraft but say that destroying other airborne objects such as unmanned balloons or "unmanned non-nuclear rockets or missiles" would require prior approval from the secretary of defense.

Bacon said the Pentagon has no written instructions for shooting down manned civilian planes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Payne Stewart profile
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