Saturday, February 21, 2015

Thirty years later, survivors of plane crash reflect on fateful night: Piper PA-31T Cheyenne, Norment Industries, N100RN, accident occurred February 22, 1985 in Utica, Michigan

Oakland Township architect Dominic Abbate points to the site of the Feb. 22, 1985 plane crash near the former Berz Macomb Airport that killed two men. Abbate and Donald Amboyer survived the collision and continue to remember the victims on the anniversary of the incident. 

With a frigid February wind blowing against his face, Dominic Abbate squints as he looks across a field near 23 Mile Road in Macomb Township.

The 73-year-old Oakland Township architect grows silent as his thoughts swirl around the events of a night 30 years ago while the winter wind gently peppers him with snowflakes. It was that evening he and another man walked away from a plane crash that claimed two lives.

“I’m just lucky to be alive,” he says softly. “I’m very grateful to still be alive.”

Abbate was one of four people aboard a twin-engine Piper Cheyenne that crashed amid dense fog in the field about 500 feet short of the former Berz-Macomb Airport runway on the night of Feb. 22, 1985.

Donald Amboyer, a Macomb County Jail administrator, was the other man who survived the crash. Killed were the pilot and another Macomb County official.

Both survivors were hospitalized for their injuries but soon went back to their daily routines in the days after the incident. Over the years, they have re-connected on the anniversary to either talk by phone or get together for dinner, mark the occasion and mourn the two lives lost.

Both have wrestled with “survivor’s guilt” and question why their lives were spared.

It’s an ongoing process, both men say.

Routine trip

It was supposed to be a routine, one-day business trip.

Abbate was the head of Warren-based Wakely Associates architectural firm, which had been hired to work on an expansion plan for the Macomb County Jail in Mount Clemens. He also was a member of the Oakland Township Board of Trustees.

He was tapped to fly to Montgomery, Ala. to visit Southeastern Specialty Co., a division of Norment Industries, which made locks, security devices and control panels for correctional facilities. The company had been contracted to provide security equipment for the new jail.

Also on the trip was Amboyer, head of the county jail, an integral part of the team working on the jail expansion project, and Robert Olafson, 47, of Washington Township, a county facilities and operations maintenance manager.

Both Ambyoer and Olafson, a personal friend of then-Macomb County Sheriff William Hackel, were respected officials.

In fact, Hackel and then-sheriff’s Inspector Ron Tuscany were scheduled to make the fateful trip.

“We were supposed to go along but had to back out about two hours before they left,” Hackel told The Macomb Daily in the days after the incident.

The plan was to fly down to Montgomery, check out the locks offered by Southeastern Speciality, have lunch at the factory, and return home that evening.

In a Feb. 5, 1985 letter faxed to Abbate, Southeastern Speciality project manager James Moseley confirmed the times, and indicated pilot Charlie Burnett would arrive the night before the trip, stay overnight in Michigan and be ready to fly out at 7 a.m. the following day. The plane ride would take about 3 hours.

“We would like to show you and your guests our facilities and discuss and demonstrate some of the locks that will be installed at the Macomb County Jail,” Moseley said in the letter. “After lunch we will continue any further discussion, or our pilot will be available for your return trip to Michigan.”

Foggy conditions

The day trip went well and the group boarded the six-seat turboprop plane for the ride back home.

Back in the Detroit area, February temperatures were on the rise, creating foggy conditions in the night sky. Flight conditions quickly deteriorated, forcing some air facilities such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport to divert airplanes elsewhere.

Once in Detroit airspace, the Macomb group was unable to see anything outside their windows.

“It was a nice flight back, but I was worried about the weather conditions,” Abbate said. “When we got over Detroit, it was like we had never come out of the clouds because the fog was that thick -- you couldn’t see a thing.”

Fog had cut ground visibility to 300 feet in the area, according to investigators.

Burnett, the 52-year-old pilot from Montgomery, had trouble locating the runway at Berz Macomb Airport, a reliever airport for Detroit Metropolitan Airport and home to about 70 private and corporate aircraft located in the area of 22 Mile and Hayes roads.

According to a National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash, the pilot advised air traffic controllers he missed his first attempt to land because he could not see the runway. If he could not see it on the next attempt, the pilot indicated he would head to either Detroit Metro or Oakland Pontiac Airport.

Instrument-rated flyers are able to use cockpit equipment to find the airport, but still have to be able to see the runway to land, especially in foggy conditions.

On his second approach, he made what’s called a beacon approach and was trying to make a visual observation with the runway lights.

That’s when the pilot hit a power line on the north side of 23 Mile Road, then tried to pull up and struck a series of treetops, shearing the right wing. The aircraft flipped over, landing on its nose and fuselage. It slid for a distance before coming to rest in a field.

Investigators would later say the humidity and damp, mushy grounds were factors in the plane not exploding, even as fuel leaked from the wreckage.

After the commotion and crunch of the crash, there was silence in the plane.

All four men hung upside down, still strapped into their seats by seatbelts.

“There was a big bang, and then we slid for a long time, it seemed like at least 10 seconds,” Abbate recalled. “After we stopped, I said ‘Don..Don,’ but there was no answer.”

After a few minutes, Amboyer came to and the men unbuckled their seatbelts, falling to the ceiling of the cabin. After checking on the pilot and Olafson, they realized both were deceased.

“Then we were like -- how do we get out of here,” Abbate said.

The two survivors could see a blue-green light through the fog, but inside the plane it was dark. The light actually was the beacon at Berz Macomb Airport.

They used a briefcase to try to break out the windows, but were unable to. The emergency exit window was jammed shut and a hydraulically operated back door couldn’t be opened.

While Amboyer and Abbate tried to stay calm even as they smelled leaking fuel and feared an explosion, help was on the way.

A few blocks from the crash site, Macomb Township resident Paul Kaiser heard the crash as he drove to his father’s house, Ralph Kaiser, chief of the township fire department. They jumped into a pickup truck and headed to the scene.

After finding the wreckage, the Kaisers called for additional manpower. Macomb Township firefighters soon arrived and freed the survivors.

“We were so happy to see them shining their flashlights at us,” Abbate said. “We crawled out of the plane and went righto a waiting ambulance.”

The NTSB would later say the pilot failed to use the appropriate procedures to land the plane including failing to maintain minimum descent altitude not following instrument flight measures.

The agency listed poor judgement by the pilot as a contributing factor to the crash.

The aftermath

Amboyer suffered numerous contusions and Abbate had a punctured lung. Both were hospitalized for several days, but discharged themselves to attend Olafson’s funeral.

Berz Macomb Airport shut down in 2003. It was demolished and the property is now a residential subdivision being developed by Pulte Homes.

Abbate’s firm went on to design the jail expansion and Amboyer continued to supervise the facility.

After the crash both men added sons to their families. Dan Amboyer is an actor appearing in the TV series “The Younger,” and Dominic Abbate, the son, is art director for marketing at George Washington University.

Don Amboyer, a U.S. Air Force veteran who started his law enforcement career as a probation officer, went on to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice and a doctorate in higher education administration.

He left the criminal justice system to work in education at Macomb Community College, serving as a dean of continuing and professional education and a vice provost for learning outreach.

Now semi-retired, Amboyer and his wife, Claudia, reside in Shelby Township but spent this past week vacationing with their family week at Disney World in Florida and will not have his annual visit with Abbate.

He says he feels “absolutely blessed and thankful” to have survived the crash, have the chance to spend the last 30 years as a husband and father, and to “give back” by trying to do good work while employed at MCC and performing volunteer work.

Still, the memory of the crash lingers.

“There has not been a day since Feb. 22, 1985 that I have not questioned why God spared me, felt guilty for surviving the crash, or thought about Robert (Bob) Olaafson, his wife, Leann, and their children,” Amboyer wrote in an email. “I did not know the pilot who perished in the crash, but my thoughts and prayers have also been for him and his family as well.”

The Olafson family did not respond to an invitation to comment.

Abbate, now a consultant for Wakely Associates, is back working on the largest bond program in Macomb County history to revamp government buildings in downtown Mount Clemens.

Like Amboyer, Abbate has had to contend with “survivor’s guilt.” From time to time he feels he’s “over” the crash, but then thoughts of that night sometime return.

Asked how he rationalizes how he and Amboyer survived, Abbate thinks for a moment.

“We didn’t have a vote in the matter,” he said. 

Story and photos:

NTSB Identification: CHI85FA120
The docket is stored on NTSB microfiche number 27987.
Accident occurred Friday, February 22, 1985 in UTICA, MI
Aircraft: PIPER PA-31T, registration: N100RN
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.


The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:


Contributing Factors:

An evidence photo shows the wreckage the day after the crash. 
Photo COURTESY Macomb County Sheriff’s Office

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