Pilot of crashed plane did not have proper license for low-visibility flight

The pilot of the local plane that crashed in the Tennessee mountains on Monday did not have the proper license to make the low-visibility flight he was attempting.

The crash killed all three people on board: the pilot David Starling, his 8-year-old son Hunter Starling and Starling’s girlfriend Kim Smith.

The Tennessee Army National Guard discovered the wreckage on Tuesday in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

“This is, unfortunately, a classic case of a pilot who is in weather conditions and in terrain for which he is not really licensed,” said aeronautical expert Wayne Ziskal.

A retired American Airlines captain and military pilot with decades of experience, Ziskal is now an assistant professor of aeronautics at Jacksonville University.

According to FAA records, Starling had a private pilot’s license for a single engine plane, but was not “instrument rated.”

That means he was licensed to fly and navigate using visual references in good visibility conditions; he was not licensed to fly in poor visibility conditions where he would need to rely solely on instruments on board to navigate.

“When you are searching for an airport and you don’t have an instrument rating, which means you can fly an instrument approach in weather that you can’t see the ground, you have a tendency…to get lower and lower trying to see the airport and maintain visual contact with the ground. And unfortunately the clouds sometimes hide the terrain,” said Ziskal.

The Action News Jax First Alert Weather team said it was overcast with low hanging clouds and mist during Starling’s flight over the mountains on Monday afternoon.

Starling did not file a flight plan with the FAA.

"The threat in this case would be a cross-country flight into marginal weather, without an instrument rating, with high terrain, in the winter time. All the threats are there," said Ziskal.
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said investigators will spend the next three-to-five days at the crash site gathering information.

“They’ll try to preserve what we call perishable evidence. That would include non-volatile memory, electronic devices such as GPS units or phones. They’ll document the wreckage scene and accident area for any physical clues,” said Weiss.

Weiss said investigators will also interview any witnesses and examine radar data, air traffic control recordings and weather data.

The full investigation could take more than a year.

“The NTSB does a very, very thorough and lengthy investigation into finding out what happened, to prevent accidents like this from happening in the future and come up with any safety recommendations,” said Weiss.

The Tennessee Army National Guard began recovery operations at the crash site on Wednesday morning.

The wreckage of the plane is on a very steep mountain side and could be at risk of sliding. That’s why the National Guard is using teams that specialize in high-angle recoveries.

Since then, a GoFundMe account has been created for the son's mother while she and the family make funeral arrangements for the son.