Plane crash survivors, Jeff O'Connor of Garwood and Mike Oster and Frank Dombroski of Westfield celebrated their safe return Tuesday evening at 16 Prospect Wine Bar & Bistro with barely a scratch among them.
The trio, who left from Bedminster airport Thursday afternoon intending to spend the weekend skiing, was rescued by forest rangers more than seven hours after their Vans RV-10 experimental aircraft crashed in the wooded terrain of the Adirondack Mountains.
Bound for Lake Placid airport, the three were planning to stay at the mountain home of fellow Westfielder Jeff DeSantis, who, once alerted, served as a point of contact between the men and their families, monitoring rescue efforts alongside New York State Police.
"All three had cell phones and they still worked, but they were told by rescuers not to use the phones so that they could remain in contact with them," explained Beth Dombroski, wife of the pilot. "When I heard his (Frank's) voice, I was frightened but they were alive and safe. We knew it was just a matter of time before they were rescued."
Beth said she also knew Frank and Mike's survival skills would serve them well. Using the tarp that covers the aircraft when it isn't in a hangar, the three "created a cocoon" and huddled for warmth amid single-digit temperatures, she explained.
Due to a "mix-up" in coordinates, rescue crews were searching hours away from the crash site. Beth explained that it was actually through contact with a friend who told Frank he was watching the search on the news from Arizona, that the pilot "Googled" his story only to discover the rangers were looking in the wrong area. He then was able to call in and redirect crews to the correct location. After being evacuated by snowmobile and evaluated by ambulance crews, the men made it safely to DeSantis' home.
"They are just really grateful to be alive," said Beth. "They feel like they've won the lottery. They feel really blessed."
"Most similar crashes in the Adirondack Mountains don't end up so well," noted Julia DeSantis.
Later in the weekend, the men hiked back in to the site with a guide but not much was salvageable. The plane, which can fly at a top speed of 220 miles per hour, was traveling at a landing speed of approximately 50 to 80 knots (equal to between 57 and 92 miles per hour) when it hit the first tree branch, said Beth, who added that the Vans RV-10 is probably her husband's tenth plane.
When people hear the phrase "experimental aircraft," they immediately think it is dangerous, said Beth, who noted it is actually an "old-fashioned term from the Wright Brothers" era.
"Every piece is manufactured by Cessna or Boeing. Once it is built, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) comes out and inspects it completely," said Beth. "It's very well checked out."
The Dombroskis and their children have traveled to Florida, Chicago, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard as well as other locations with Frank at the controls.
Despite this harrowing incident, Frank told Beth he intends to get back in the cockpit. "It was our tearjerker moment when I told him ''I will go flying with you again," said Beth.
An FAA investigation remains ongoing.