‘I heard the sound of trees’: Rockwood plane crash report shows instructor trying to help student pilot

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A Knoxville student pilot killed when his plane crashed near Rockwood May 25 called his flight instructor as the plane was descending, according to a preliminary crash report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The body of Vasile Ghelan, 35, was found in the wreckage several hours after the plane he was piloting crashed in Cumberland County. First responders found the plane after hours of searching near the Hinch Mountain area, about 18 miles southwest of the Rockwood airport.

Vasile Ghelan is seen in a photo courtesy of Travis Hawkins Jr.

The NTSB report says Ghelan had accumulated 44 hours of flight time in the month that he had been taking flight lessons. He was on the second leg of his first cross-country flight and had just departed from Crossville Memorial Airport when the crash occurred. The plane’s next stop was to be in Cleveland.

The report says the plane climbed after takeoff to 3700 feet before beginning a gradual descent. At 3000 feet, the plane entered a 450 degree descending right turn, the report states. The plane completed a course reversal and crossed an open field before impacting rising terrain on a heavily wooded ridgeline.

The NTSB report contains an interview with the unnamed flight instructor. That transcript reveals the instructors final conversation with Ghelan:

I asked about fuel state, magnetos on, carb heat position, and the instruments were all in the green, but the engine was not making full power, and the airplane could not climb. From there, I asked where he was, what is your closest airport, and he thought he was 40 to 50 miles from Crossville and didn’t think he could make it back. I remember telling him to land at the nearest airport and I would pick him up, but he said he had slowed to 70 knots. I told him to make an emergency landing in a field, and he said there were trees and mountains and I asked if he was talking to ATC, and he said he was not. Soon after, I heard the sound of trees and impact and the connection went dead.

The airplane was consumed by post-crash fire, the report states. The instrument panel and its contents were destroyed. The engine displayed significant damage but was recovered and retained for further examination. The tail section remained largely intact.

The plane was most recently inspected in December 2020. at 5,221.84 total aircraft hours, according to the NTSB report.

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