NTSB releases official report on fatal plane crash in the Smokies

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SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The National Transportation Safety Board released its Aviation Accident Factual Report Monday that documents how a plane, carrying three people, went down in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in December.

Federal authorities said the Cessna 182H collided with mountainous terrain as it was trying to land at the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport.

The collision, according to the NTSB, killed the private pilot and two passengers.

A family member told Local 8 News David Starling was the pilot. His girlfriend, Kim Smith, and his son, 8-year-old Hunter Starling, were on board. According to the NTSB's report, an autopsy revealed all three victims died from multiple blunt force injuries.

Investigators said a toxicology report revealed Phentermine was found in Starling's liver, spleen and in his kidney.

"Phentermine is a prescription stimulant/appetite suppressant medication marked under various names including Adipex. It is a central nervous system stimulant, and side effects include over-stimulation, restlessness, and dizziness," said the NTSB's report. "It carries the warning, 'phentermine may impair the ability of the patient to engage in potentially hazardous activities such as operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle; the patient should therefore be cautioned accordingly.'"

Authorities said Starling did not disclose his use of Phentermine to the FAA.

Federal documents showed Starling's flight instructor told investigators that he "pushed his training as hard as he could and cut corners wherever he could."

Starling's flight instructor added, "I've been flying for more than 40 years, and I tried to explain to him [Starling] the history of pilots with an anti-authority attitude. It's an attitude that catches up with you. He was a low-time, flat-land pilot with no mountain experience. There was an AIRMET for mountain obscuration that day… there was plenty of information out there."

The Cessna 182 fixed wing single-engine aircraft went missing Monday, December 26. A reconnaissance flight by the Tennessee Army National Guard was able to locate the plan Tuesday afternoon.

The plane was reported missing south of the Sevierville Airport. Park officials received the report of the missing aircraft around 7:35 p.m. A single Blackhawk helicopter was able to fly late Tuesday afternoon and spotted the wreckage along the last known flight path of the missing aircraft.

Officials said the plane was coming from Florida.

Officials reported that the plane was in conversations with air traffic controllers at McGhee Tyson Airport, but there is no additional information on theses conversations.

Civil Air Patrol conducted an aerial reconnaissance flight late Monday to locate the plane using the emergency locator transmitter, but they weren't able to find any transmissions from the aircraft.

Overnight, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center used information from McGhee Tyson Airport tower radar and the plane's emergency locator transmitter to find a specific area where the plane was most likely located.

On Tuesday, ground search teams were sent to Bearpen Hollow Branch and areas southwest of the Bullhead Trail to search for the aircraft.

The aircraft was found Tuesday afternoon on an unnamed ridge between Cole Creek and Bearpen Hollow Branch late on December 27. Paramedics were hoisted down to the crash site and confirmed there were no survivors.

Officials announced Wednesday that the park's technical rescue team was being supported by experts from Big South Fork National Recreation Area, Obed National Scenic River, and Tennessee State Paks for help securing the plane wreckage and extracting the victims from the steep and wooded area by helicopter.

“The plane is positioned on a very steep mountain side and could be at risk of sliding further down into the drainage,” said Chief Ranger, Steve Kloster. “These search and rescue personnel specialize in high angle rescues and have the best knowledge in making sure we conduct our operations in the safest manner possible.”

At around 5:00 p.m. Wednesday the park's technical rescue team worked with the Tennessee Army National Guard and its helicopter to pull the three victims from the wreckage.