Questions linger in 2016 plane crash killing Harbor Springs couple, son

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Harbor Springs — The cause of a 2016 plane crash in Montana that  claimed the lives of three members of a Michigan family remains a mystery, according to Federal Aviation Administration  records.

Patricia Verhelle, left, with an unidentified accountant, an unidentified attorney and her teenage grandson, Timothy P. Brown, outside a court building in Marathon, Florida. Brown owns two hotels in Marathon area.

The deaths were tragic enough for relatives and friends but having no conclusion is difficult, said Patricia Verhelle, whose daughter, Tricia Marie Verhelle-Brown, 45, perished in the crash on Sept. 17, 2016, along with her husband, Timothy S. Brown, 64, and the couple’s son, Theodore “Teddy” Brown, 13.

“The FAA do a terrific job but it’s hard to take after two years there is no conclusion,” said Verhelle in a phone interview from Harbor Springs. “All they have found is no one really knows what caused it.

Verhelle said federal aviation officials examined weather conditions and reassembled the aircraft, which seemed to be in working order; an autopsy of her son-in-law, the pilot, didn't turn up any alcohol or drugs in his system.

“So if it wasn’t the weather, the plane or my son-in-law,” she posed. “… then what caused it?”

Video: Harbor Springs family killed in Montana plane crash

Verhelle said she takes comfort in that her daughter’s oldest son, Timothy, then 15 years old, was home with her in Michigan.

“They wanted him to go on the trip but he declined because he was carrying 16 credits at North Central College and thought he should stay home,” she said. “I might also have been on that same trip. We all used to fly together. We had all flown Up North a week or two before and walked the Mackinac Bridge.”

The Browns were visiting national parks in Montana, she said, and were returning to Michigan with a stop planned in Rapid City, South Dakota, when — for still unexplained reasons — the 1974 twin-engine Beechcraft Baron plummeted from the sky about 90 minutes outside Billings County and crashed into a flat, grassy plateau at an elevation of about 3,751 feet. The crash and the bodies were discovered within an hour, she said.

“They were on a straight line after Billings and through some slight turbulence when he took a hard left and then a right,” she said. “Something happened. He might have been turning to see a herd of elk but something occurred. Maybe a warm pressure area. Maybe windshear.

“And about then is when it (plane) went straight down, pancaked,” she said.

The aircraft was spotted on the ground by a ranch caretaker, according to investigative records. Verhelle’s son-in-law was strapped in the pilot's seat and it was initially believed that he was the sole occupant of the plane. He had no pulse. Then it was determined the impact had yanked her daughter and son-in-law into the back of the plane. Both were dead and autopsies indicated they likely bled to death, she said.

“Tim was an amazing pilot and very experienced,” she said. “But he was also what I call a sissy pilot. He wouldn’t fly if there was rain or a cloud in the sky. He certainly didn’t take chances. He didn’t do drugs and wouldn’t drink a drop of alcohol 24 hours before flying. And he was meticulous, one to check everything out before taking off, right down to making sure everyone had their seat belts on.

“His motto was ‘hours of idleness and seconds of terror.'”

Verhelle wishes the autopsy might have been more thorough on her son-in-law.

“They never checked if he might have had a heart attack, and it's too late now,” she said.

“Unknown or undetermined”

Officially, the crash event has been defined as “unknown or undetermined” in the Aviation Accident Report with the National Transportation Safety Board. Federal records reflect it was daytime, about 12:36 p.m., and “there were no witnesses to the crash and no significant weather was in the area at the time …” There was no radio traffic indicating anything was wrong in the air and radar last tracked the aircraft on an altitude of 5,800 feet.

According to a federal analysis, the aircraft was found to have collided with the ground in a “nose-low near vertical attitude.” Later the airframe, engine and propellers revealed no discrepancies that would have precluded normal operation.

“The reason for the departure from the cruise flight and the loss of control could not be determined from the available evidence,” the NTSB  concluded.

Brown had an airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for single and multi-engine aircraft. He had a flight instructor certificate for single-engine aircraft, and the Baron had a “double yoke” arrangement — two steering wheels — because he planned to teach his sons how to fly. He had taken his last FAA medical exam on March 3, 2016.

The aircraft, while 42 years old, had gone through routine maintenance, according to Verhelle and Brown’s flight logbooks, annual inspections dated May 25, 2016, had been completed and signed off. Both engines had been overhauled.

Verhelle recalls a postcard which Brown had received months earlier about a recall on a part for the plane. She was not sure if he had taken care of it but expected because of his nature, it was something he would have done.

Timmy takes over

Her grandson, whom she refers to as “Timmy,” is very intelligent and she described him as “red-haired, handsome about 6-foot-2and 17 going on 30.”

The teen doesn’t shy away from challenges. In 2015, he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his father.

Shortly after the crash, the teen told a reporter he planned to run the family hotel businesses in their memory. He has since taken over making decisions at three hotels in Michigan and two in Florida. His father owned and operated the Colonial Inn of Harbor Springs; a Holiday Inn Express and a Breakers Resort, both in St. Ignace; and the Seashell Beach Resort and Kingsail Motel in the Florida Keys.

“My son-in-law left me a note that in the event of his death, all of his businesses should be maintained for his sons, should they decide they ever wanted to pursue them,” said Verhelle.

With the encouragement of family and help of private tutors, Tim jumped several grades in school and, at the age of 17, has almost completed two years of college. His plan is to transfer to the University of Michigan next year and complete his undergraduate work before enrolling in a business college, or possibly Harvard.

Her grandson’s interest is so intense that he has interrupted his college education at times to focus on the hotels, like after Hurricane Irma in 2017 — about a year after the crash — leveled one in the Florida Keys and seriously damaged another.

Timmy Brown filed as an emancipated minor so he could live on his own in his parents house with his dog and turtle, she said. In spare time from school and demands of being the owner of five hotels, he also pursued flying. He soloed at 16 and plans to have his own plane, like his father, next year.

“Its been a bumpy road but he’s doing great,” she said. “He has had to drop out of school to take care of some things but in general, nothing defeats him.”


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