NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A small airplane approaching a runway in heavy fog crashed into an adjacent botanical garden, killing three people inside the plane early Wednesday.
The airplane's owner, James Beauchamp of Corapeake, North Carolina, said the 1975 Mooney aircraft was piloted by a friend, Michael Buxton of Portsmouth, Virginia. He said Buxton and two friends were on their way home from Key West, Florida, where Buxton kept a sailboat. Authorities have not released the names of the victims, pending notification of family members.
The plane lost communication with Norfolk International Airport about 4:30 a.m., Lt. Curtis Hardison of the Virginia State Police said. The wreckage was discovered about three hours later inside a wooded section of Norfolk Botanical Garden called the Enchanted Forest.
Dennis Diaz, a National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator, said the plane was found upside down about 100 yards away from a lake that borders the botanical garden and the airport. He said the aircraft came to a rest largely intact about 200 feet after the initial impact area.
He said there's no evidence to indicate the plane broke up before the crash or that there was a fire before or after impact. He said it would take nine to 12 months to determine a probable cause for the crash.
Buxton, originally from Buffalo, New York, was a clinical psychologist who ran a practice in Virginia Beach. He was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a state deal to allow a private company to charge tolls on tunnels between Portsmouth and Norfolk as part of a construction project to add tunnel capacity.
"He got involved early and he encouraged other people to get involved," said Terry Hanaher, one of the leaders of Citizens for Accountability that led opposition against the toll project. "He donated financially, he donated time. He's very politically active."
Hanaher said she and Buxton shared different political views - he was conservative and she's liberal - but they got to know each other through the fights against tolls and said that he frequently flew planes.
The plane stopped for refueling in Palatka, Florida, on its way to Virginia. It was originally heading to Suffolk Executive Airport, near Norfolk in southeastern Virginia. The flight-tracking website FlightAware shows that the pilot changed course toward the Norfolk airport after making an approach in Suffolk.
The Suffolk airport is a general aviation, non-towered airport, said Kent Marshall, the airport's manager.
"We would not know if someone is coming," he said. In bad weather, he added, there are instrument approaches for landing, but they are under the control of the Norfolk tower.
Typically, a pilot would try to land in Suffolk and then make a request to land in Norfolk if the weather didn't allow it there, he said.
Diaz said the plane did not have a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder and was not required to do so. However, investigators will be listening to air traffic control communications, he said.
Beauchamp said the plane was in good mechanical condition and called Buxton "a very conscientious, qualified pilot." The aircraft's FAA license was issued in 2010 and was good through 2018.
Police blocked the entrance to the garden, which is immediately next door to the airport. The city says the garden — a popular attraction, with 350,000 guests a year, according to the city — is closed until further notice.
Neighbors said they didn't see or hear the crash.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three individuals who lost their lives in today's deadly plane crash," Michael P. Desplaines, Norfolk Botanical Gardent President and CEO said in a Facebook post. "We are comforted that none of our surrounding neighbors or NBG staff were injured."
Associated Press Writer Bill Sizemore contributed to this report from Richmond.