Wreckage of missing plane carrying 3 found; no survivors

Man, his son, girlfriend flew Cessna 182 to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

By Francesca Amiker - Reporter, Bakari Savage - Reporter, anchor, Scott Johnson - Reporter

LAWTEY, Fla. - A search for a single-engine plane with a man, woman and an 8-year-old boy from Bradford County, Florida, on board ended in tragedy Tuesday when the plane's wreckage was found in Tennessee with no survivors.

The plane, which disappeared Monday afternoon in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, was found at 4:43 p.m. Tuesday on an unnamed ridge between Cole Creek and Bearpen Hollow Branch in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to a release from the National Park Service.

Paramedics were hoisted down to the scene and found that no one had survived, authorities said. The identities of the three victims have not been confirmed, but authorities said earlier that the three occupants of the plane were David Starling, 41, Kim Smith, 42 and Hunter Starling, 8, of Bradford County. Family members said Starling and Smith were a couple, and Hunter was David's son.

Authorities said recovery efforts would begin Wednesday. There is no word on the cause of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Cessna 182 aircraft was expected at Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport, and when family members notified the FAA that the flight never arrived, an alert notice was issued at 7:35 p.m. A reconnaissance flight with the Civil Air Patrol focused on an area in the foothills of the national park, about 15 miles south-southeast of the airport, but nothing was found.

The National Park Service said Tuesday that a signal from the plane's emergency locator transmitter led ground searchers to the area of Bearpen Hollow Branch, where the wreckage was later located by a Tennessee Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter.

Because no flight plan was filed, authorities didn't know which airport the plane left from Monday morning, but News4Jax learned from family members that the three had taken off about noon Monday.

"Just waiting and not knowing anything is what's really hard right now," Samantha Hodges, Smith's cousin, said before reports surfaced that the plane had been found.

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. 

Family said Starling was a pilot who served in the Air Force and went into the logging business when he returned to Bradford County. News4Jax found a record of a Cessna 182H owned by a Joseph Starling in Lawtey.

Aviation expert Ed Booth said the plane would have been flying about 155 mph at about 8,000 feet because of the mountains, and north Florida to Tennessee was within the plane's 700-mile range, if it was fully fueled. About 15-20 miles from his destination, Starling would have made preparations for a landing.

“He would be descending towards the airport in mountainous terrain. This is a little more challenging," Booth said. "He would be slowing the airplane down; he would be checking the checklist, such as: assuring the aircraft was configured for the landing in terms of the fuel systems, in terms of the flaps, lighting, communicating on the radio to aircraft in the area.”

Booth said that the forest canopy made the wreckage hard to spot from above.

“We don’t know how much experience this pilot had in mountain flying," Booth said. "The disappearance may be explained by a mechanical malfunction. That can be a mechanical failure of the engine, (it) could have run out of gas, any number of explanations here."

Family members said the couple goes to Tennessee every year after Christmas. According to a Facebook post, they planned this trip to help victims of the recent fires in the Gatlinburg area.

Hunter was in third grade at Northside Christian Academy in Starke.

Kim Smith’s family held a prayer vigil at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in High Springs.

Family and friends declined to comment Tuesday after news broke that the wreckage had been found.

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