KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A pilot whose helicopter crashed near Gatlinburg in December, killing a passenger, was warned several times about the challenges of flying the Smoky Mountains in poor weather conditions, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The preliminary report released Wednesday gives facts about the fatal helicopter crash on the Sevier-Cocke County line in late December 2021 but does not give a cause. That will come later once the investigation is complete.
The report says the Robinson R-44 helicopter was being leased by the pilot and passenger who had traveled from Utah to pick it up and review the agreement, the report says. A passenger was killed and the pilot seriously injured in the crash that happened around 2:25 p.m. Dec. 29, in Cosby.
The helicopter was stored at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport, and employees working that day told the NTSB they had multiple conversations with the pilot cautioning him about poor weather conditions that day. The report says the pilot was “cautioned by all of them he spoke with about the dangers of flying in the Smoky Mountains in marginal weather.” One person even showed the pilot a book kept in a training room about crashes that had happened in the area, the report says.
The report says the pilot told crews “those are hills” and told them he had “14 years of experience mountain flying.”
The pilot’s plan was to fly toward Asheville and follow Interstate 40 through the gorge to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he would visit family before heading back west.
An ambulance helicopter pilot who was also at the airport told the helicopter pilot that the mountains on that route were about 6,000 feet and “there was no way he would make it there.”
The pilot and passenger departed the airport at 2:13 p.m. The report said an eyewitness at a campground near the accident site told investigators that he first heard the helicopter coming, then saw it fly out of the fog. After seeing it impact trees, he called 911.
The report said first responders found the helicopter’s cabin was crushed forward, with the tail higher than the cabin. The wreckage was examined and the NTSB noted in the preliminary report that all engine structural components, fuselage and flight control surfaces were accounted for at the scene, the auxiliary fuel tank was full and the fuel had no contamination.
The wreckage was retained by the NTSB for further examination. The NTSB said a final report would be completed within 24 to 48 months.