5 things to know about Jim Clayton's helicopter crash

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Nearly two years after Knoxville businessman Jim Clayton crashed a helicopter into the Tennessee River, killing his brother, the National Transportation Safety Board released its final report Tuesday that determined Jim Clayton was at fault.

Here are five things to know about the Aug. 3, 2020, crash and the NTSB's findings.

Jim Clayton entered vortex ring state

The final NTSB report says Jim Clayton's flying created an aerodynamic phenomenon known as vortex ring state, and led to the crash when combined with his "inability to arrest the helicopter's descent while maneuvering for landing."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association explains vortex ring state can happen when "a helicopter descends at a rate that puts the blades in their own downwash."

"Instead of drawing clean air from above the blades, some disturbed air begins to travel up through the blades," according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and flight instructor from Dallas with more than 40 years of experience, told Knox News he does not fly helicopters but that vortex ring state is common knowledge in the piloting world.

"It is something that all helicopter pilots would be trained to recognize and also trained to mitigate with an appropriate action as to fly out of the area of disturbed air," he said.

Clayton now without helicopter license

A Federal Aviation Administration database shows Jim Clayton, 86 years old at the time of the crash, no longer has the helicopter privilege that allowed him to fly in August 2020, though it's not clear whether this privilege was revoked or given up voluntarily.

The Clayton family declined to comment, and the FAA has not shared this information with Knox News.

Still, Jim Clayton was able to pilot an airplane until his updated medical certification expired in May 2021, according to the database. He could fly airplanes again if his medical certification is renewed.

The report also revealed Jim Clayton's brother and fellow businessman, Joe Clayton, 84, took over helicopter controls during the flight for about 20 minutes, according to Jim's statement to NTSB. While Joe had a pilot's license, he was not certified to pilot helicopters.

Joe, who drowned after the helicopter hit the water, was not in control of the helicopter in the moments leading up to the crash, according to Jim.

Few flight hours leading up to crash

Jim had five hours of flight time in the previous 90 days leading up to the crash, according to the report, and only two of those hours took place in a helicopter.

Jim Clayton stands next to his business jet based at Knoxville's McGhee Tyson airport. January, 1998
Jim Clayton stands next to his business jet based at Knoxville's McGhee Tyson airport. January, 1998

Jim's grandson and passenger, Flynt Griffin, told NTSB everything seemed normal prior to the crash as Jim approached a landing area on his Sequoyah Hills property.

However, the report says the crash might have been prevented "by choosing a better equipped landing site with a more simplistic approach."

Jim Clayton had special medical needs

Jim Clayton required hearing amplification at the time of the crash and had been given a "special issuance" medical certification, which typically expires in one year.

However, NTSB's final report shows the date of Jim's last medical certification was May 4, 2019, or 15 months prior. Jim's medical certification was shown as expired in an FAA database when the crash occurred, but it was later updated.

Clayton brothers built big businesses

Joe Clayton got his start in the automotive industry with his brother, Jim Clayton, and the two eventually created Clayton Homes together. The business split in 1981, with Jim taking the Clayton Homes business and Joe focusing on Clayton Volvo and other Southeast dealerships.

"Joe and I were as close as two brothers can be, and, as only siblings, we have supported each other since growing up together on a farm in West Tennessee and as business partners for decades," Jim Clayton said in a news release in the days following the crash.

Knox News reported in April that Jim Clayton plans to bring a long-planned science museum to Knoxville but has been dealing with multiple setbacks.

Ryan Wilusz: Knoxville's downtown reporter and urban explorer
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: 5 things to know: Jim Clayton and the fatal Knoxville helicopter crash