In the moments before a small plane crashed killing three men whose lifelong friendship began in the Buffalo area, the pilot radioed a control tower, describing the extreme weather that was battering their aircraft.
“It’s literally a washing machine as soon as we go through the cloud deck,” pilot Michael J. Buxton, a Buffalo native and Virginia resident told the air traffic controller at Norfolk International Airport in the early-morning hours of March 4. “... (T)he cloud deck’s at 1,200 feet. Before that, everything’s very easy, but once we get to 1,200 feet, it’s a washing machine.”
Buxton, 61, a pilot for more than three decades, was flying back from a Florida vacation to Virginia with Ted D. Reinhardt, 62, a professional drummer from the City of Tonawanda whose death shocked the local music scene, and William M. Shaver, 60, of Holland, who was just starting to feel better after years of suffering from disabling back injuries.
After giving up trying to land at a smaller Virginia airport about 50 minutes earlier, Buxton was attempting a second landing at Norfolk at 4:13 a.m. when the plane disappeared from the radar screen, according to a preliminary report that the National Transportation Safety Board issued this week.
And while no conclusions have been reached on what caused the crash, strong winds, a low cloud ceiling and a mist that limited visibility proved daunting.
Buxton, a child psychologist who was living in Portsmouth, Va., informed the air traffic controller that the plane was experiencing much turbulence. “Things were floating around in the cabin,” Buxton radioed, according to the report.
Interpreting information from one of the plane’s crucial instruments, the directional gyroscope, was also proving to be difficult.
“I don’t know if the turbulence disrupted it,” Buxton said of the gyroscope, but “if at all possible, radar vectors would be appreciated on the glide slope, it’s a very, very wild ride.”
The air traffic controller remained in radio contact, directing Buxton to make a series of turns in order to line the aircraft up with the runway. Buxton also received the latest weather conditions, according to the NTSB report.
Winds were gusting up to 27 knots, and there was an overcast ceiling at 200 feet. In addition, a mist limited visibility to about 2 miles.
At 4:13, the plane, a 1975 four-seat Mooney M20F, was approximately three-quarters of a mile northwest of Runaway 23 at an altitude of 200 feet. Buxton radioed the controller, saying he had established visual contact with the airport. The plane was cleared for landing.
Then, radio contact suddenly ended. The final radar reading had placed the aircraft 2,800 feet from the runway.
The controller tried unsuccessfully several times to re-establish radio contact before calling first responders to begin coordinating an accident response. The search continued until 7:20 a.m., when the plane was located about a half-mile away from the runway on the grounds of Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Investigators said the plane clipped the top of an approximately 80-foot-high tree, “with numerous branches broken.” The disabled aircraft then began a 260-foot-long “wreckage path” before coming to a rest upside down against a tree.
“Broken tree branches, paint chips, and small pieces of metal were distributed along the wreckage path. All major components of the airplane were accounted for at the accident site, and the wreckage did not display any evidence of a pre- or post-impact fire,” the preliminary report stated.
On their way home from a vacation in Key West, Fla., Buxton, Reinhardt and Shaver had departed Key West International Airport at 8:30 p.m. March 3, and at 10:40 p.m. stopped for refueling at Palatka Municipal Airport in northeastern Florida, before taking off at 11:57 p.m. bound for Suffolk Executive Airport in Suffolk, Va.
At 3:24 a.m., Buxton had contacted air traffic controllers to say he was executing a “missed approach” at the Suffolk airport and requesting permission to divert to Norfolk.
On Feb. 25, after Reinhardt and Shaver had driven from Western New York to Buxton’s home, they flew out of the Suffolk airport to Key West for a vacation that was intended to let them catch up with one another and go sailing, according to relatives.
An NTSB spokesman said Tuesday that the preliminary report is the first of three reviews that the board will issue on the crash. The second will be a “factual report,” and the third will determine the crash’s “probable cause.” The step-by-step process is expected to be completed within a year.