The moments leading up to last month's fatal helicopter crash in Cosby, Tennessee, have been revealed, including the pilot's decision to ignore warnings about dangerous flying conditions in the Great Smoky Mountains — mountains he called just "hills," according to a preliminary federal report.
The Sevier County Sheriff's Office has identified the pilot as Matthew Jones, 35, of Utah. Jones survived the crash and has since been released from the hospital, while passenger Julianne Gerritsen, 36, was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Sheriff's Office has been told Jones and Gerritsen were partners, according to Jeff McCarter, deputy chief of investigations.
Pilot told there's 'no way' to fly safely
Gerritsen and Jones arrived at Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport from Utah the morning of Dec. 29 to pick up a helicopter they were leasing, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Federal Aviation Administration records show Jones has a commercial pilot's license to operate helicopters.
Jones flew around the airport's traffic pattern to make sure the helicopter, a four-passenger Robinson R44 II, was in working order. He was warned by multiple employees at the service center about the dangers of flying in the Smokies under the current weather conditions, the report said.
Just before the crash, the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tennessee, issued a hazardous weather outlook. The alert, issued for several counties including Sevier and Cocke, warned about thunderstorms, damaging winds and potential tornadoes.
The report states an eyewitness who later called 911 when the helicopter crashed told authorities "it was extremely foggy that day."
FAA records also show Jones has an instrument helicopter rating, which allows pilots to rely on instrumentation to navigate when skies are not clear. However, flight tracking provider FlightAware does not show an instrument flight rules plan was submitted for the Dec. 29 flight.
Prior to takeoff, someone even showed Jones a book from the training room that included "controlled flight into terrain" crashes that happened in the area.
His response? "Those are hills," according to the report.
He also told employees about his 14 years of experience flying in the mountains.
Another helicopter pilot met with Jones to ask about his plans for the flight. The report indicates Jones planned to fly toward Asheville, North Carolina, while following Interstate 40 to meet family in Raleigh.
"The other helicopter pilot told him that the mountains east of (the airport) were 6,000 ft and 'there was no way he would make it there,'" the report said. "He also stated there were powerlines above the I-40 gorge."
Helicopter flew out of fog before crash
Jones took off and headed east around 2:15 p.m.
The helicopter traveled through valleys at between 1,200 and 1,750 feet altitude, according to radar data cited in the report. A flight path map and data from FlightAware shows Jones turned in multiple directions during his short flight, rather than traveling in a typical straight line.
An eyewitness called 911 after noticing the helicopter fly out of fog and crash into trees. The crash happened near the Sevier County and Cocke County line, roughly 15 minutes northeast of downtown Gatlinburg.
"The cabin impacted the ground and was crushed forward with the tail boom raised behind the cabin," the report says. "The tail rotor was separated and resting on the right side of the wreckage."
The engine was examined and showed no obvious damage.
'Mistakes of others' should be a lesson
While it's too early to tell whether mechanical failure was involved, the NTSB report confirms continuity between the flight equipment and the controls.
Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and flight instructor from Dallas with 40 years of experience, reviewed the NTSB report at the request of Knox News. Emphasizing he was using only the information he gleaned from the report, Katz shared his analysis of that information.
"Given the story that we're reading here from the encounters this guy had from other people at the scene, they were all trying to put a stop to what inevitably happened," he said.
Katz told Knox News he does not personally pilot helicopters, but the aircraft type does not matter in this situation. It boils down to bad judgment and decision making, he said.
"We're talking about a pilot here who is feeling invincible, feeling bulletproof, feeling like he can fly in between the raindrops," Katz told Knox News. "It is what has killed pilots over the decades and will continue to do so until the pilot community learns from the mistakes of others."
Touchstone Helicopters, a California-based company that leases helicopters, owns the R44, according to the FAA.
The NTSB report is preliminary, and the agency's investigation is ongoing.
Ryan Wilusz: Knoxville's downtown explorer and urban reporter
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Cosby, TN helicopter crash: Pilot ignored warnings, NTSB reports