GATLINBURG, Tenn. – Park rangers who located the wreckage of a single-engine plane from Florida that went missing Monday afternoon over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park confirmed an extended family's worst fears: there were no survivors.
Kim Smith, 42, of High Springs, Florida; her boyfriend, David Starling, 41, of Lawtey; and Starling's 8-year-old son, Hunter Starling, were aboard the plane, according to Smith's cousin, Samantha Hodges.
The wreckage was spotted about 4:30 p.m. by a Tennessee Army National Guard aircraft and the National Park Service's technical rescue team was able to reach the site and confirm their deaths. The team returned Wednesday morning to try and secure the wreckage and remove the victims.
“The plane is positioned on a very steep mountainside and could be at risk of sliding further down into the drainage,” Chief Ranger Steve Kloster said. “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.”
The National Transportation Safety Administration will lead the investigation into the crash.
"Our next step is our investigators will get on the ground and do an on-scene investigation," Eric Weiss of the NTSB said. "They’ll document the wreckage, accident scene. They’ll search for non-volatile memory, such as GPS units or phones, do any witness interviews, look at the data, air traffic control tapes and meteorological information related to the accident time."
While the investigation could take a year or more to complete, the NTSB may release preliminary findings in the next seven to 10 days.
"We find probable cause in the vast majority of cases, and our investigators are experienced in looking at crashes such as this," Weiss said. "But of course, every crash is different."
The three were on an annual after-Christmas trip to the mountains when Starling's Cessna 182 went down southeast of Gatlinburg on Monday afternoon. Hodges said they were planning to help victims of the recent fires during their holiday trip.
Hodges said Smith spoke to her family moments before the flight went missing.
"They were about 13 minutes away from landing. That was the last time they spoke to her," Hodges said.
News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth said the fact that a person on the place could make a cell phone call tells him the plane might have been flying too low.
"This area has some rather tall mountains," Booth said. "I believe it would have been instantaneous; no time to react."
Booth estimates that only about half of all pilots who fly small planes have an instrument rating, which would have been useful flying over mountainous terrain with uncertain weather conditions and sunset approaching.
"The lack of an instrument rating received a lot of publicity in the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident about 15-20 years ago, but if one is not specially trained and rated to fly in that type of weather, they could lose control of the airplane, lose situation awareness and fly into the terrain," Booth said.
The National Park Service says the plane was found Tuesday afternoon on an unnamed ridge between Cole Creek and Bearpen Hollow Branch. Paramedics were hoisted down to the scene and discovered no one on the plane had survived.
Family said Starling was a pilot who served in the Air Force and went into the logging business when he returned to Bradford County.
Smith was heavily involved in animal rescue efforts and worked with Friends of Clay County Animals, fostering animals, helping find them homes and supporting the group financially.
"It’s one of the saddest things that I’ve heard in a long time," said Andrea Cassman, who worked with Smith at the group. "I just saw her, and then to see (Tuesday) that a plane went down and she was on it. We were praying that she would be found with the rest of her family in the woods. We were disheartened when we heard the rest of it."
The third-grade teacher who taught Hunter at Northside Christian Academy was visibly shaken by the three deaths and couldn't talk about him or how the school was going to tell his classmates when they return to school next week.
Park officials said they received a report around 7:35 p.m. Monday that a missing single-engine airplane might have gone down southwest of Mount LeConte Lodge.
The FAA issued an alert for the missing plane after a family member notified the agency Monday evening that the flight didn’t arrive in Gatlinburg. Information from McGhee Tyson Airport’s tower radar and the plane’s emergency locator transmitter was used to find the area. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center says the plane was in contact with air traffic controllers at McGhee Tyson.
Ground teams searched the area near Bearpen Hollow Branch and southwest of the Bullhead Trail on Tuesday. The wreckage was finally spotted from a single Blackhawk helicopter.