Strong gusts near a rural Williamsburg airport might have played a role in the plane crash that killed a two-star Air Force general and his wife last week, airport officials and family members said.
Maj. Gen. Joseph D. Brown IV, 54, and his wife, Sue Brown, 52, had traveled from their home in the District on Friday to visit Brown’s father, Joseph D. Brown III, a doctor with a private practice in Williamsburg. It was a trip the couple had made many times in the family’s single-engine Cessna 210, but airport officials said winds gusting to 35 mph might have caused the plane to stall and spin out of control just before an attempted landing.
The plane went down about 800 yards from the airport, and authorities are sifting through the wreckage to determine what caused Brown, an expert pilot who flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, to lose control of the plane.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said that the investigation is in the early stages and that a preliminary report about the incident could be released in May.
The crash stunned the Fort McNair community in the District, where Brown’s three-year term as commandant of the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University was about to end. The 32-year Air Force veteran was thinking about retiring and embarking on a new stage of life with his wife of 30 years, friends and relatives said.
Friends and family described the Browns as a devoted couple who were still madly in love.
“They were great teammates — always together,” said family friend John Charlton, the director of international students at NDU. “They were warm, caring people.”
The Browns were a committed military family, embracing each community they joined as they moved around the country, including multiple stints in the Washington area.
Sue Brown was president of the Air Force Officers’ Wives’ Club of Washington, D.C., and helped organize philanthropic events and socials, including a charity ball in April that raised more than $700,000 for the Air Force Aid Society. As president, she helped oversee the club’s scholarship program, which awards $30,000 a year to military dependents and spouses, said Dani Smith, a club vice president. Sue Brown also volunteered at a thrift shop at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Southeast Washington.
At Fort McNair, the Browns could often be seen holding hands. Usually by their side was Jackson, a black Lab mix named after the Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The dog also died in the crash.
In the evening, the couple liked to sit in Adirondack chairs behind their home and watch the sun set over the Washington Channel.
“They’d tell whoever was walking by, ‘Come on over, pull up a chair,’ ” said Army Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, the commandant of the National Defense University. “That’s how they were.”
Sue Brown, a Washington native, was a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School and attended the College of William and Mary, where she was first-chair cello with a symphony orchestra. One day, the young cellist complained that there were no worthy suitors in Williamsburg. A bass player replied that she should meet her son, who was home, visiting from Virginia Military Institute. They met during the intermission of a concert.
After two dates, Joe Brown proposed to Sue Stanger. They were married after her graduation on June 26, 1982. The couple had two children, Daniel Craig Brown, 25, an Air Force lieutenant and intelligence officer based at Fort Meade, and Emily Allison Brown, 23, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“They loved life and lived it to the fullest,” Emily Brown said. “They loved dancing and were always the last ones on the dance floor at parties. . . . They loved sharing their love of life together.”
Family members said the Browns appreciated fine wine and took frequent trips together, including a romantic getaway cruising around California wine country in a blue Ford Mustang convertible last summer to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
“They were each other’s best friend,” Daniel Brown said.
As an Air Force pilot, Brown was remembered as meticulous, someone who carefully managed his maintenance logs and closely studied weather reports before flights.
“He was steady as a rock — complete confidence,” said Martin, who flew with Brown to a conference in Carlisle, Pa., last August.
“Whatever went so terribly wrong, it must have been an absolute surprise,” said Harry Dorsey, the dean of faculty at the Eisenhower school. “It must have been something that he couldn’t possibly overcome.”
Brown had more than 4,300 hours flying state-of-the-art military aircraft, including the swept-wing B-1B supersonic heavy bomber. Brown’s radio call sign was “Sweep,” a name he earned after he became the first known pilot to fly a B-1B with one wing swept forward and one back after a mechanical problem, Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Carey said.
“You’re not supposed to be able to fly with one wing aft and one wing forward,” Carey said. “The plane is engineered against it. It’s a dangerous way to fly. But he was a good pilot with ample skills.”
In the Iraq War, Brown earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully bombing his targets and evading enemy antiaircraft fire, including a surface-to-air missile that missed his jet bomber by 500 feet, according to the award citation.
On Saturday, Brown was scheduled to give a speech about military education at a Virginia National Guard Association conference in Richmond. Colleagues said it was not uncommon for Brown to fly his small plane to work events. In his Facebook profile photo, Brown is seated in the cockpit, smiling.
The blue and white Cessna 210E Centurion, tail number N111BK, was built in 1965 and had been in his family for 25 years.
Joseph D. Brown III registered the plane in his name with the FAA in 1987, and he transferred the title to his son in 1994, according to FAA records.
Equipped with a 285-horsepower engine, the Cessna 210E has a cruising speed of about 140 knots, or 161 mph.
On April 19, Brown took off from Potomac Airfield in Prince George’s County at 3:55 p.m., intending to visit family in Williamsburg before flying to Richmond the next day. At 4:53 p.m., the plane slammed into a wooded area in the Williamsburg Landing retirement community, missing a house by about 50 feet, police said.
Larry Waltrip, owner of the private Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport, which handles 35,000 takeoffs and landings a year, said Brown had radioed to say he was about to land on the runway, heading southeast.
Waltrip said Brown did not radio a distress call, and he said the 35 mph tailwinds at the time could have caused the plane to stall. Family members said officials have told them that the plane might have been caught in a crosswind, stalled and then spun to the ground.
“This was a freak thing,” said Waltrip, who opened the airport in 1970. “It seemed the wind got him.”
According to NTSB records, the crash was the fourth at the Williamsburg airport since 1982. It was the first fatal crash there since 2006, when a single-engine Piper suddenly lost altitude while taking off in blustery weather and smacked into trees, killing a passenger and seriously injuring the pilot.
The Browns often flew with family members. Martha Stanger, Sue Brown’s mother, said that she swore to herself that she would never fly in such a small plane. Then she flew with Brown and came away impressed with her son-in-law’s confidence behind the controls and smooth flying.
“He took it very seriously,” Martha Stanger said. “He was not one of these pranksters or anything like that. He made me feel comfortable.”