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N1839X accident description

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Crash location 35.651944°N, 83.458333°W
Nearest city Gatlinburg, TN
35.714259°N, 83.510164°W
5.2 miles away
Tail number N1839X
Accident date 26 Dec 2016
Aircraft type Cessna 182
Additional details: None

NTSB Factual Report


On December 26, 2016, about 1602 eastern standard time, a Cessna 182H, N1839X, collided with mountainous terrain during descent for landing to Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport (GKT), Sevierville, Tennessee. The private pilot and two passengers were fatally injured; the airplane was destroyed. The airplane was registered to and operated by the pilot under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the personal cross-country flight. The airplane departed Keystone Airpark (42J), Keystone Heights, Florida, about 1300.

Information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed that the airplane was receiving visual flight rules (VFR) flight-following services and was at 9,500 ft mean sea level (msl) when the pilot requested a descent into GKT. At 1554, the controller approved the descent, issued an altimeter setting, and directed the pilot to "maintain VFR." Radar data depicted a descent on a ground track of about 340° directly toward GKT at a groundspeed between 130 and 150 knots.

At 1558, about 20 miles from GKT, the airplane descended below the minimum vectoring altitude of 8,000 ft msl. The airplane continued its descent on the same ground track and about the same speed. At 1602, the radar target was at 5,400 ft msl abeam the peak of Mt. LeConte, elevation 6,500 ft, when the radar track ended.

At that time, the controller issued the airplane a radio frequency change to the GKT frequency and terminated radar services. No reply was received from the airplane, and no further attempts to contact the airplane were made.

Local law enforcement was notified of the overdue airplane by concerned family members. A search was initiated, and the wreckage was located later that evening by helicopter at 5,400 ft in steep, mountainous terrain at the same position as the last radar target.


The pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land. He was issued a third-class medical certificate on December 3, 2013, and he reported 12 total hours of flight experience on that date. That certificate expired on the pilot's 40th birthday in September 2015. A search of FAA records revealed that the pilot had not applied for a medical certificate in any class after December 3, 2013.

The pilot was issued his private pilot certificate on April 1, 2014 at 45.3 total hours of flight experience. His pilot logbook was not recovered. On April 27, 2016, the pilot reported to his insurance carrier that he had accrued 272 total hours of flight experience, 219 hours of which were in the accident airplane.


The four-seat, single-engine, high-wing, fixed-gear airplane was manufactured in 1965 and equipped with a Continental O-470-R-series, 230-horsepower, reciprocating engine. According to the airplane's maintenance records, the most recent annual inspection was completed on October 3, 2015, at 2,595 total aircraft hours.


At 1615, the weather reported at GKT, located 15 miles north of the accident site, included few clouds at 4,600 ft and calm wind. The temperature was 18°C; the dew point was 13°C; and the altimeter setting was 30.30 inches of mercury.

Airmen's Meteorological Information (AIRMET) Sierra for mountain obscuration was in effect along the airplane's flight route. Satellite imagery showed instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions with cloud tops between 6,000 and 7,000 ft msl in the area surrounding the accident site. Conditions north of the ridgeline that the airplane struck and at the destination airport were VFR.

At 1545, about the time the airplane passed overhead, the weather reported at Macon County Airport (2,034 feet elevation), Franklin, North Carolina, about 25 miles south of the accident site included scattered clouds at 700 ft, a broken ceiling at 1,200 ft, and an overcast cloud layer at 2,400 ft. The visibility was 4 statute miles in fog.

A pilot who transitioned through the area of the accident site around the time of the accident captured images and weather information near the site. He said that during the climb, his airplane entered a flat, stratus cloud layer at 5,000 ft and that the cloud tops were at 7,000 ft msl. According to this pilot, the cloud layer remained consistent throughout the en route and descent portions of his flight.

A search of official weather briefing sources, such as Lockheed Martin Flight Service and the Direct User Access Terminal Service, revealed that no official weather briefing was received by the pilot from those sources. A search of ForeFlight weather information revealed that the pilot did not request a weather briefing, nor did he file a flight plan using ForeFlight mobile. However, at 1449, the pilot did enter route information from 42J to GKT in ForeFlight, but he did not view any weather imagery. It could not be determined if the pilot viewed weather observations or terminal area forecast information en route as Foreflight did not archive that information.


GKT was depicted on the Atlanta VFR Sectional Chart at 1,014 ft msl. The Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) for the quadrant that contained both GKT and Mt. LeConte was 7,000 ft msl. Instrument approach procedure charts for GKT depicted the minimum sector altitude as 7,900 ft msl, which provided a minimum clearance of 1,000 ft above all obstacles within a 25nm radius of GKT.

These charts were available to ForeFlight subscribers.


The wreckage was examined at the accident site by an FAA inspector. There was an odor of fuel, and all major components were accounted for at the scene. Because of the hazardous conditions at the site, a brief photo-documentation of the wreckage was performed before it was recovered by helicopter for further examination. During the subsequent examination, it was determined that two landing gear and a propeller blade were not recovered from the accident site.

The airframe was segmented by both impact and cutting performed by the aircraft recovery technicians. Control continuity was established from the cockpit area, through several breaks and cuts, to the flight control surfaces. All breaks were consistent with overload failure or mechanical cutting during recovery.

The leading edges of both wings were uniformly crushed. Examination of the instrument panel revealed that the instruments were destroyed by impact, and no useful data was recovered. The mixture, throttle, and propeller controls were all found in the full-forward positions. The fuel selector valve was in the "Right" tank position.

The propeller, propeller governor, engine case, No. 6 cylinder, and the crankshaft forward of the No. 4 main bearing were separated by impact forces. The engine could not be rotated by hand due to impact damage. The oil sump was also separated, which allowed for visual inspection of the power section. Visual inspection and borescope examination revealed normal wear and lubrication signatures. The engine accessories were also separated from the engine due to impact. The magnetos could not be tested due to impact damage. Disassembly revealed normal wear and no pre-impact mechanical anomalies.


The Regional Forensic Center, Knox County, Tennessee, performed the autopsy on the pilot. The cause of death was listed as multiple blunt force injuries.

The FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, performed toxicological testing for the pilot. Phentermine was detected in the liver at 0.167 ug/ml, in the spleen at 0.125 ug/ml, and in the kidney at 0.116 ug/ml.

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 overstimulation, restlessness, and dizziness. 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." The pilot had not disclosed use of this medication to the FAA. There is no known relationship between tissue levels and impairment for this drug.


The owner/operator of the flight school at 42J where the pilot received his primary flight instruction was interviewed. According to the flight school owner, who was a flight instructor, the pilot "pushed his training as hard as he could and cut corners wherever he could." According to school records, the pilot scored a 73 on his FAA private pilot written exam. The pilot purchased the airplane as soon as he passed his practical exam.

The pilot later built a hangar on his property and kept the airplane there, but he continued to fly in and out of 42J. The flight school owner said that he watched the pilot depart 42J with his family on multiple occasions in weather that was "below VFR minimums." He said that he counseled the pilot numerous times about operating the airplane VFR in instrument conditions. Most recently, he counseled the pilot 2 weeks before the accident.

The flight school owner stated, "I've been flying for more than 40 years, and I tried to explain to him 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."

When asked why he thought the pilot departed on the accident flight with those conditions along his route of flight, the instructor said, "I counseled him numerous times about taking instrument training and getting an instrument rating. Lots of us around here did. He couldn't be bothered. He would just draw… [the flight route] on his iPad and go."

NTSB Probable Cause

The non-instrument-rated pilot's intentional visual flight rules flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's established anti-authority attitude.

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