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Local pilot dies when seaplane hits river


COPAKE LAKE—Michael Bennett Braunstein, 72, of Copake Lake was killed when the plane he was piloting plunged into the Hudson River between Germantown and Cementon Thursday afternoon, May 2.

Known as “Mickey,” Mr. Braunstein owned a 100-acre compound on Golf Course Road at Copake Lake. The estate has been on the market for about a year. It is partially in the Town of Taghkanic and includes a home, a barn, a grassy air strip, a terminal and a private seaplane base, where he took off and landed his 1943 Grumman G-44A Widgeon, a World War II seaplane converted into a pleasure craft.

The Widgeon was an amphibious plane that could also touch down and take off on land. Flying alone, Mr. Braunstein took off from Copake Lake the day of the crash.

Many of Mr. Braunstein’s friends and neighbors around the lake have posted their condolences on the Copake Lake Conservation Society (CLCS) website, one woman shared childhood memories of watching the seaplane in amazement and trying to jump the waves it created on her Jet Ski.

Norton “Norty” Hight, who knew Mr. Braunstein for nearly 20 years and considered him one of his closest friends, remembered him as a “straightforward, no nonsense guy with a deep love of life.”

Mr. Braunstein’s first love was airplanes and he had been a licensed pilot for many years. Mr. Hight flew with his friend often and said the Widgeon, a five-passenger craft, was “in perfect condition” and was completely overhauled last year. He would usually land the seaplane in a little cove at one end of lake, then lower the wheels and travel up a short ramp to a 50- to 60-foot diameter pad, where he could “turn the plane on a dime.” The seaplane and another antique plane—a bi-wing, single-engine, two-seater (one seat behind the other), circa 1940s craft with a “slick vinyl fabric” exterior and a teak-wood interior, were both housed in the terminal.

Mr. Braunstein was also a car buff and had in his collection a 1963 black Corvette, a DeLorean, 1924 Ford with a big suitcase strapped on the back and could often be seen tooling around town in an antique truck with his big white dog, Teddy, riding shotgun. Teddy was also a frequent co-pilot in the golf cart Mr. Braunstein rode around the estate.

Also in the terminal along with his planes and cars, was a grand piano–he had a couple more in the house. In addition to his other interests Mr. Braunstein was a jazz musician—a composer and player, who favored American standards by Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra, said Mr. Hight.

Mr. Braunstein’s father often took his son to the West Coast where, as a young boy, he found himself sitting on the lap of celebrities, such as, Nat King Cole.

Largely a self-taught musician, Mr. Braunstein did get some pointers from local pianists; he also frequented jazz clubs in New York City and took jazz cruises, according to Mr. Hight.

Like his father, Mr. Braunstein was an insurance consultant by trade, but at some point in his life he was an airline entrepreneur. He moved his family, his wife, Barbara and two daughters, Julie and Lisa, to Puerto Rico, where he opened an airline which ferried people from island to island. The service was popular among tourists and residents alike, who could save hours in travel time by flying, said Mr. Hight.

Mr. Braunstein was fond of animals and over the years had 11 Great Danes, all of them buried in the backyard, said his friend.

The estate was home to a menagerie: five horses, a couple of ponies, a pig that arrived as a baby and grew to weigh 1,200 pounds, ducks, goats and rabbits. Mr. Braunstein spent time with them, fed them and seemed to have a special rapport with them, said Mr. Hight. In addition to Ted, the big white dog, the Braunsteins also had a teacup Yorkie and a talking Macaw.

Mr. Braunstein’s seaplane did stir up controversy, according to the CLCS website, which notes that “in 1984, the Town of Copake changed its zoning law to prohibit seaplanes from landing on local bodies of water.” But Mr. Braunstein’s plane was grandfathered-in.

In 1998, Mr. Braunstein sought and was granted permission to build his grassy airfield by the Taghkanic Zoning Board of Appeals. He subsequently sued the ZBA over the limits they imposed on his use of the airstrip. He lost the case.

Mr. Braunstein died of massive trauma suffered as a result of the crash, State Police told The Columbia Paper, Wednesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation into the cause of the crash. The plane will be recovered by a private firm, though that had not been done by press deadline May 8.

Police used sonar to locate the debris field associated with the crash and as of noon, May 3 divers had discovered parts of the wreckage, including a piece of the tail section in 20-foot-deep water, across a 100-square-foot area.

Shortly after 5 p.m., May 3, State Police recovered Mr. Braunstein’s body.

Authorities worked from a command post established at the Lehigh Cement Company dock, the morning of May 3.

Crash witnesses in Germantown, outside taking advantage of the warm, sunny spring day, May 2, saw the “pontoon” plane go down in the middle of the river between Main Street in Germantown on the east shore and the Lehigh Cement Plant, 120 Alpha Boulevard, off Route 9W in Cementon, south of Catskill, Greene County, on the west shore.

Some witnesses say the plane hit the water, flipped, was on fire and sank.

Crews from Columbia, Greene and Ulster counties along with State Police all took part in the initial emergency recovery effort.

State Police did not send divers into the river the afternoon of May 2 due to concerns that  fuel that may have leaked into the river.

Columbia County Control received reports of the plane crash at 4:35 p.m. May 2 and dispatched the Germantown Fire Department, Northern Dutchess Paramedics to the river off Main Street, Germantown. Mutual aid was summoned from the Hudson and Livingston fire departments. The Columbia County HazMat Team was also called to the scene.

Initially, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office went to the scene to investigate with the assistance of State Police. The crash scene was later turned over to State Police in Catskill, Greene County, who investigated along with the Greene County Director of Emergency Services and the Greene and Ulster County Sheriff’s Offices.

The U.S. Coast Guard was advised about the crash and train and river traffic was stopped during the incident.

Fire crews were back in service at 8:28 p.m., Thursday.

Funeral services were Tuesday, May 7 at a New York City temple. Mr. Braunstein leaves his wife, two daughters and four granddaughters.

Mr. Hight said he will miss going to jazz clubs and having lunch with Mr. Braunstein. “We would power talk and solve the problems of the world. He was a wonderful person and knew a lot of influential people, who I was able to meet through him.”

To contact Diane Valden email




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