Visibility, steep descent factors in Smokies plane crash, according to NTSB preliminary report

Search and rescue team (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

GATLINBURG (WATE) – A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Bureau indicates a plane that crashed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park likely collided with mountainous terrain during descent for landing at Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport in Sevierville.

The crash happened on December 26, 2016. Family members tell WATE 6 On Your Side David Starling, 41, Kim Smith, 42, and Hunter Starling, 8, were killed in the crash. David Starling was piloting the plane, a Cessna 182H, during the crash.

More: Son remembers Smokies plane crash victim

According to flight information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airplane was at 9,500 feet when David Starling requested a descent for landing using visual flight rules. The controller approved the descent at 3:54 p.m. and the FAA said the plane was on a track heading directly toward the airport at 130-150 miles per hour.

At 3:58 p.m., the FAA reported the plane descended below the altitude the controller had cleared, which is 8,000 feet. At 4:02 p.m., tradar showed the plane was about 5,400 feet when the FAA says the plane disappeared. The peak of Mt. Leconte is located at 6,500 feet and the NTSB says the plane was found at 5,400 feet in steep, mountainous terrain at about the same position as the last radar target.

More: Read the full NTSB preliminary accident report

The WATE 6 Storm Meteorologist Ken Weathers said it was cloudy during the time of the flight, which could have impacted visibility. There was a warning for aircraft in that area for extensive mountain obscuration with ceilings less than 1,000 feet and/or visibility less than three miles.

According to the NTSB, the pilot had accrued 272 hours of flight experience as of April 27, 219 hours of which were in the plane that crashed.

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