Three people, including an alumnus of the College of William and Mary, were killed when their plane crashed in the Norfolk Botanical Garden Wednesday morning, according to Virginia State Police.
The plane was found at about 7:20 a.m. in the Enchanted Forest Section off Azalea Garden Road, spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said in an email. State police said airport officers found the wreckage.
The four-seater plane clipped the top of a tree while trying to descend into Norfolk International Airport, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
It flipped over and landed upside down, and the pilot and two passengers died at the scene, she said.
Officials think the pilot was headed toward the Suffolk Executive Airport, but tried to land in Norfolk because of the weather. The region was under a dense fog advisory issued by the National Weather Service for much of the morning.
Pilot was William & Mary alumnus
The pilot of the 1975 Mooney M-20F aircraft was Michael Buxton, 61, of Virginia Beach, according to Virginia State Police.
Buxton earned a doctor of education degree in the field of counseling at W&M in 1985, according to university spokesman Brian Whitson.
"This is very sad news, and the William & Mary community extends our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Michael Buxton and all of the victims of yesterday’s tragic crash," Whitson said in an email.
The airplane's owner, James Beauchamp of Corapeake, North Carolina, said Buxton and two friends were on their way home from Key West, Florida, where Buxton kept a sailboat.
State police identified the passengers as William M. Shaver and Ted Reinhardt, both residents of New York.
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.
Plane changed directions
The plane was headed for Suffolk Executive Airport, according to preliminary information from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The plane stopped in Palatka, Fla., before heading for Virginia, according to Terry Williams, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
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, according to 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.
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.
The pilot attempted to land the plane about 1 ½ miles from Runway 23, Norfolk Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Julian E. Williamson wrote in an email.
The Norfolk International Airport lost communication with it just after 4:30 a.m. and a search was launched.
Multiple agencies search for missing plane
Multiple agencies searched for the plane in the water and on land, Williamson said.
Fog made the search difficult, according to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn.
“Visibility was limited to 25 yards,” he said.
Norfolk Fire and Rescue, Norfolk Police, Virginia Beach Fire, Virginia Beach EMS, the Virginia Port Authority, U.S. Coast Guard, Navy Regional Fire and Norfolk International Airport Fire all assisted in the search, according to Williamson.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, Geller said.
NTSB investigators arrived at the scene Wednesday afternoon to study the wreckage, Williams said.
Officials are pulling records to listen to the last communication between the pilot and air traffic controllers in Norfolk, Williams said. Once the wreckage has been documented, officials will move it to a secure location for further study.
Williams said there were no witnesses to the accident.
Botanical Garden closed
The Botanical Garden remains closed Thursday, according to its website.
Michael P. Desplaines, president and CEO of the botanical garden, expressed sympathy for the families of the victims, as well as gratitude for first responders and investigators.
“The Garden will continue to work with officials as they move forward with their investigation,” he wrote. “We hope to re-open the Garden as soon as possible.”
Associated Press contributed to this story. Pawlowski can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478. Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.