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Records: Passenger killed, pilot injured in helicopter crash near Sevier-Cocke county line

Officials said the helicopter went down near Apple Tree Lane Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 29.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — UPDATE (Jan. 12): The pilot in a fatal helicopter crash on Dec. 29 was warned about flying in the Great Smoky Mountains, according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report.

According to the report, the pilot and passenger in the crash traveled from Utah to pick up the helicopter after leasing it from the owner. They arrived at the service center where it had been stored at around 8:30 a.m. according to the report.

The pilot reviewed the lease and conducted a short flight around the GKT airport traffic pattern, assessing the helicopter per the lease agreement.

According to people at the service center, the weather was rapidly changing throughout the day from "marginal visual flight rules (VFR) conditions to instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions." It says the pilot spoke several times with service center employees about leaving the area.

They said he was warned about flying in the Smoky Mountains during marginal weather. One person said they showed him a book in their training room filled with crashes in the area. According to the report, the pilot responded by saying "those are hills," and said e had 14 years of experience of mountain flying.

A local air ambulance pilot that worked on the field also asked him about his intentions, according to the report. He said he planned to leave towards Asheville and follow I-40 through the gorge to Raleigh, North Carolina, the report says. There, the reports says he planned to visit relatives before heading back to Utah.

The air ambulance pilot said he warned the man about flying there, saying the mountains were 6,000 feet and "there was no way he would make it there." He also said powerlines were above the I-40 gorge.

The report says the pilot and a passenger left at around 2:13 p.m. and ew through valleys in an easterly/southeasterly direction, between altitudes of 1,200 feet and 1,750 feet. 

It says that the helicopter's cabin hit the ground and was crushed forward, with the tail boom raised behind the cabin. The tail rotor was also separated and resting on the right side of the wreckage, officials said.

The report says that all engine structural components, fuselage and flight control surfaces were accounted for at the scene. The main and auxiliary fuel tanks were also still attached to the fuselage, officials said. The auxiliary one was still full, and no contaminations were noted from either tank.

The engine was also attached to the airframe with no noticeable damage, according to officials. The engine compartment did not have oil or fuel residue.

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Editorial Changes: The Federal Aviation Administration, in an online database posted last week, stated the pilot died in the Dec. 29 crash and the passenger lived. That's incorrect, records show.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that a passenger died Wednesday afternoon when a helicopter crashed near the Cocke-Sevier County line.

The Cocke County Sheriff's Office and the Sevier County Sheriff's Office said the crash was in Sevier County near Apple Tree Lane and Hooper Highway. Deputies from both sheriff's offices responded to the crash, according to officials.

According to a preliminary report from SCSO, one person is dead and one person is injured because of the crash.

FAA said only two people, a pilot and a passenger, were aboard the aircraft. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board said they will investigate the crash. 

Credit: Flightaware
Flight path of the helicopter before its crash.

"I was in my bedroom with the sliding glass door open to my balcony, and I heard a helicopter that was very, very low to the ground," said Brandi Proffitt, who lives near the area where the helicopter reportedly went down. "Just minutes later, first responders were flying by the house."

Units hiked to the site of the crash at around 3 p.m., according to SCSO. They said a bystander saw the helicopter and heard a sound similar to a crash before calling authorities.

A private individual picked up the aircraft Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport.

Officials said that Touchstone Helicopters owned the helicopter. They said that it was a Robinson R-44 four-seat light helicopter. They also said a startup company named 'Lifted' operated it.

Weather reports from Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport 20 minutes before the flight showed overcast skies, with ceilings as low as 1,600 ft. 

According to FlightAware.com, the aircraft was flying between 1,500 ft and 2,000 ft. From the flight path, the weather conditions and an eyewitness account, the helicopter may have flown in the clouds, in an area with low visibility. 

Former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison brought helicopters to the department and is a helicopter pilot. He said he would not have flown in those conditions. 

"You want good clear conditions, you don't want a low ceiling," said Hutchison. "If you're around the mountains, things can change in a matter of seconds." 

Credit: Robinson Helicopter Company
Example of a Robinson R-44 four-seater light helicopter
Credit: WBIR
Credit: Matt Hagen

    

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