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Friends recall flight to glory for Payne Stewart, five others

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–If ever a flight took off with the destination of heaven, it was this one.

Payne Stewart, Robert Fraley, Van Ardan, Bruce Borland, Michael Kling, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue took one of the most public private flights in history on October 25, 1999. They left Orlando, Florida with the intended destination of Dallas, only to find themselves in the presence of God several hours before their depressurized Learjet ran out of fuel and crashed in South Dakota.

“I think it is comforting that three friends [Stewart, Fraley, and Ardan] got on a plane on a bright, clear morning and lifted off to heaven,” says Van’s wife, Debbie. “They didn’t go down; they went straight up.”

Family or friends have acknowledged that all six were followers of Jesus Christ. A review of their lives reveals His clear presence. A review of the events of October 25 reveals the plan of God to communicate His saving faith through the lives of the six. The smoke cloud of this fiery crash signaled hope instead of destruction, and it drew-through the media-curious onlookers who found something life-giving instead of morbid.

“God spoke to the world at the beginning of the first millennium through a star, and he has chosen to speak at the close of this millennium through a superstar,” says Dr. Charles Harvey, former Chairman of the Executive Board of the Southern Baptists. “We believe God is using events like this to speak to hearts.”

The evidence abounds. Kate Borland, wife of Bruce, says, “My Jewish neighbor became a Christian at Bruce’s service. Her excitement about what God is doing in her life brings me back to what it’s all about.” The six knew what life was all about: having a proper eternal perspective.

Painted above Fraley’s workout room door was this quote, “We must care for our bodies as though we were going to live forever. But we must care for our souls as if we were going to die tomorrow.”

“That personified Robert Fraley,” says friend Robert Wolgemuth, an author and literary agent. “Think about the kind of people who live ‘at ready.’ Firemen, policemen, SWAT teams. Robert Fraley lived ‘at ready.'”

Fraley was a sports agent for some of the best-known athletes in the world. A deeply committed Christian, he sat on the board of many ministries, including that of R.C. Sproul. “Robert Fraley was much more than a contract flipper for athletes,” Wolgemuth says. “He was a very deep man. The reason he was successful in sports management is that he was the kind of person others aspired to be.”

Ardan too was a successful sports agent, but rubbing shoulders with big-name athletes wasn’t his focus. “His motto in life was based on the Scripture that says to give thanks in all things,” says Debbie Ardan. “Whether in business or personal life, he was always thankful. He never took for granted his income, his health, his position, or me. Everything he had he regarded as a gift from God. He always said to me, ‘All of this could be gone, so let’s be thankful today.’

“I believe Van will be remembered as a man who lived in the present, yet had an eternal perspective. Thankfulness is a theme he repeated over and over with our children. He just felt that if you were complaining or unhappy, it was evidence that you weren’t trusting in the Lord.”

Bruce Borland hadn’t met Payne Stewart before he was invited onto the flight at the last minute. A golf course designer, Borland and Stewart were to have preliminary discussions about working together on a project. Borland was an elder at Palm Beach Community Church in Jupiter, Florida. Although getting a deal with Stewart would have been big, Kate Borland says her husband didn’t want to talk business on the first meeting with Payne.

“He wanted to get acquainted, so he took a family picture to show Payne,” Kate says. “I told the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) that’s one of the things I’d like, if they could recover it. Now we have this jet-fuel-smelling picture that is like gold to us. It was one of the things Elizabeth [8-year-old daughter] took to her third-grade class when she wanted to show them some things. The next day her teacher wrote a note saying that one of the girls in class came to her saying she wanted to pray to receive Christ. Those are the things we hang on to.”

Kate says she believes Bruce will be remembered for his integrity and for always having the “big perspective in life.” “He felt so passionately about servanthood, about being there to do whatever it took,” she says.

Pilot Michael Kling and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue were servants too. Friends recall Bellegarrigue giving of her time to fly a cancer patient to receive medical attention. Kling founded Eagles Wings International, a missionary flight agency that he wanted to use to deliver food and the message of Jesus Christ to developing countries. Eagles Wings had not formally gotten off the ground, though Kling, an ordained minister, had been on several missions trips. Kling’s family vows to continue with plans for the agency.

Items recovered from the plane reveal much about the passengers. Besides the Borland family picture, a veritable Christian mini-library was on board. Recovered were several Bibles, The Doctrine of God, four golf devotionals, two Kenneth Boa books on prayer and scripture, and a book on spiritual disciplines.

The eternal impact of the accident is reverberating around the world. PGA chaplain Larry Moody says several PGA golfers have given their lives to Christ since the accident. J. B. Collingsworth, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, has done very little except related follow-up ministry since the accident.

“A guy drove 700 miles to talk with me, and I led him to Christ,” J.B. says. “I’ve had appointments with people who watched the service on TV. Everyday is a new experience with this thing. Somehow, God spoke to the world in a way He has never spoken before.”

The families recognize it, and in the midst of their pain, they are pleased to see what God has done.

“I believe God is doing a mighty work in the world today, and that this so-called tragedy is turning many, many hearts back to the Lord,” says Debbie Ardan. “Many who have never considered Christ are staring at Him face-to-face. I was riding home after Payne’s service, and I thought, ‘A chord of three friends is not easily broken.’ The love of these three is impenetrable. The media can’t unravel it. The world is confronted with the reality of God’s active power in the world today.

“I am excited about what God is doing. It’s like I’m on my tip-toes looking over a wall, saying, ‘What’s God doing next?’ “

All of the families have been blessed with grace and poise to stand through the pain. Kate Borland says she is sustained by the prayers of God’s people and the recognition that “God is still on the throne and has a plan so big we can’t imagine it.

“We always pray that God is going to use us,” Kate says. “This isn’t the way we would pick — and I don’t have to understand it — but I want to be used, and so did Bruce. I feel in a sense that God has chosen Bruce to show Himself to the world, to tell the world how much He loves them, and I want to help make sure that happens.”

So does Tracey Stewart, who told Collingsworth, “I count it an honor that God would choose my husband to tell the world how much He really loves them.”

The wives and children of the people on board that plane try to keep the eternal perspective their loved ones lived. Says Debbie Ardan, “God has allowed me to experience the deepest sorrow and the greatest joy that there is. In the meantime, I remember that on God’s clock I’ll be with Van in just a few minutes.”

Lee, of Charlotte, N.C., is the producer and columnist for the Sports Channel of crosswalk.com and a sports evangelism consultant to the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. Used by permission from Sports Spectrum, a Christian magazine based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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  • Victor Lee