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Report sheds light on pilot's fatal '18 crash near Mackinac Island

Mark Hicks   | The Detroit News

On a late summer night two years ago, a pilot headed to Mackinac Island to retrieve passengers and return to Wisconsin.

But Ronald Dague never made it. Minutes after departing Mackinac County Airport in St. Ignace, his single-engine plane plunged into Lake Huron.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently determined why.

“The pilot's failure to maintain sufficient altitude after takeoff in dark night conditions … resulted in a collision with the water,” the federal agency wrote.

The finding is in an aviation accident report finalized last month. Its analysis, along with other documents compiled since the Aug. 31, 2018, crash, details the events leading up to Dague’s final flight as well as the aftermath.

In a statement to the safety board, Paul Fullerton, the Mackinac County Airport manager, reported seeing Dague at a self-service pump around 8 p.m., filling his Piper PA32RT-300T with about 35 gallons of fuel. 

Dague, 64, a district attorney in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, requested a courtesy car “to go to town to eat supper,” Fullerton said. “He indicated that he had just dropped off 5 passengers on Mackinac Island and that he would be back to go pick them up and go back to Wisconsin that night.”

Fullerton went home, then returned to the airport at about 9:30 p.m. He again spoke with Dague, who was “going to Mackinac Island and wait over there for another hour for the passengers,” the manager said in his statement.

Returning to his office, Fullerton saw Dague’s plane taxi to one of the runways at about 9:45 p.m. “The aircraft looked and sounded normal” as the pilot headed east, he reported.

Minutes later, two people on their front porch less than a mile north of the airport reported glimpsing “a low-flying airplane take off” from the site, they told investigators.

The plane “was flying about 100 to 200 (feet) above the surface of the water, then … banked to the right” before they lost sight of it, according to the safety board report. “About 10 to 15 seconds later, the witnesses heard what sounded like a crash into the water or an explosion.”

Four people who were sitting near the beach outside the Harbor Light motel next door “had a very similar report of what had occurred,” a county sheriff’s deputy told the safety board. 

Around the same time, back at the airport, Fullerton received a call from 911 dispatch asking if an aircraft had just left, explaining a witness reported seeing one fall into the lake.

“I confirmed the departure of N500MJ, I then did look east out over the lake and observed how dark it was,” Fullerton said, adding that as emergency personnel started arriving, he noticed “it was a very dark night, there were no stars, there was no moonlight and the horizon was indistinguishable.”

The arriving first responders saw the same.

“Visibility on the lake was 0 due to it being so dark. At this time was unable to see any debris or anything on the lake,” Earnest Stadlberger, captain of the St. Ignace Fire Department, said in a statement to the NTSB. “Upon arrival of our first engine we placed it at the end of the runway to put the light tower up to use it as a landmark for the search. I was still unable to a see anything on the lake due to darkness.”

Authorities initially found the plane’s door panel and a maroon seat.

Within days, Michigan State Police divers located the wreckage in 44 feet of water, about a mile from the departure end for the runway Dague left. The wreckage was transported to a secure facility for NTSB to examine.

“The airframe was severely damaged, and deformations were consistent with a slightly right-wing-down, nose-low, high-speed impact with the water,” the board’s final report said.

Dague’s body was not recovered until more than two weeks after the crash, officials said.

An autopsy by the Mackinac County Medical Examiner's Office determined the cause of death as multiple blunt force injuries, with no significant natural disease.

Toxicology tests were negative for drugs, but authorities detected small amounts of ethanol “most likely produced post mortem because the body had been submerged in water before recovery 17 days after the accident,” NTSB said.

Meanwhile, investigators interviewed the passengers Dague had dropped off. None reported mechanical defects or any unusual issues as he pointed out the life jackets “in case they needed them,” checked all the headsets, talked about his wife and daughter, memos show.

“During the flight, the pilot talked about his love of flying, how important instruments are, he explained to the passenger up front it was important and to trust your instruments and not your visual,” an interview summary said. “When … crossing Door County Ron commented he did not like to fly over water, that if he was going to crash, he would want to crash on land.”