Pilot found dead in plane wreckage near Whiteside Mountain

Rescue crews made their way through rugged terrain today and located the wreckage of a single engine private plane at approx. 12:45 p.m. in southern Jackson County near Whiteside Mountain. The aircraft’s sole occupant was the pilot, Gary Huttleston of Aiken, S.C., who was flying from Knoxville, Tenn., to Aiken, but crashed approx. 40 minutes into the flight and did not survive.

Heavy rains and dense fog covered the Plateau on Thursday and at approx. 6:30 p.m., the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center contacted the Jackson County 911 Communication Center reporting a plane was in distress in southern Jackson County. Further information from the AFRCC and the Federal Aviation Administration indicated that the plane was last seen on radar at 6:14 p.m., said Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad Public Information Officer Nat Turner.

The missing aircraft was located today after a private plane flew overhead and called Macon County 911 to report it, said Jackson County Emergency Management Director Todd Dillard. By using a drone from N.C. Emergency Management, search teams were able to locate the wreckage.

Once the plane was found, search crews made their way through difficult terrain to reach the crash site. GCRS Chief Jeff Stewart said it was slow going reaching the objective area.

“It wasn’t that far in, but it was really awful terrain,” said Stewart. “You’re down on your knees crawling, you aren’t walking, and everything was steep and slick. The weather clearing up is what really helped us.”

Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol bring food to rescue crews who have spent hours travelling through rugged terrain to reach the crash site near Lombard Lane south of Whiteside Mountain.

The initial search for the aircraft began on Thursday evening in both Macon and Jackson Counties and rescue crews had to deal with heavy rains and dense fog. Highlands Fire & Rescue Chief Ryan Gearhart said he had about a dozen people following up on leads searching along Horse Cove Road in the Rich Gap and Walking Stick areas.

“It was very limited, obviously,” said Gearhart regarding Thursday’s operation. “I told Robbie (HFR Asst. Chief Robbie Forrester) if it’s on the side or just off the road we might see it, but if it’s in the woods, you couldn’t see at all. The terrain was challenging enough, then the weather, the time of day, it all compounds things and makes it difficult.”

The search had to be called off because of dangerous weather conditions, which Gearhart said is a tough call to make but safety is the top priority.

“I’ve got to look out for about a dozen guys out there,” he said. “We had to weigh our options. It was unknown terrain, you could just be walking in the dark and walk off a cliff. It’s really a hard call to make not knowing if the person in trouble is still alive, but you hope and pray for the best.”

As information was coming in throughout Thursday evening, HFR and GCRS crews were following all leads and searching possible coordinates the plane may have went down. The call to postpone the search was made after all the leads had been exhausted.

“We went to every lead we had, it was all we could do,” said Gearhart. “Once you do that, it’s just a needle in a haystack. Safety is of the utmost importance and you have to look out for your team.”

Gearhart said his team went out again on Friday to assist GCRS. By that point it was confirmed the plane had gone down in Jackson County and GCRS was leading the operation. Gearhart said he has been involved in dozens of S&R operations in the past and was impressed with GCRS’ management of the operation.

“HFR is fire rescue, we do some search, some swift water rescue, some rock rescue, but that’s all these guys (GCRS) do,” said Gearhart. “I’ll say one thing, that was one of the most coordinated and top-notch operations I’ve ever been a part of.”

Recovery operations are underway, and Dillard said National Transportation Safety Board and FAA investigators are on their way to assess the cause of the incident.

“The investigators at NTSB and FAA are very good at what they do and they’re coming out to the crash site to conduct a thorough investigation to determine what happened,” he said.

He added there is no firm timeline set for the investigation. Gearhart said reaching the wreckage is challenging, crews must take an ATV, then ride in a canoe across a lake, and then hike up to the crash site.

Recovery operations are underway, and Dillard said National Transportation Safety Board and FAA investigators are on their way to assess the cause of the incident.

“The investigators at NTSB and FAA are very good at what they do and they’re coming out to the crash site to conduct a thorough investigation to determine what happened,” he said.

He added there is no firm timeline set for the investigation.

Multiple local, state, and federal agencies assisted with the search and rescue operations including the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad, Highlands Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Rescue Squad, United States Forest Service, North Carolina Wildlife Resources, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson County Emergency Management, Swain County Emergency Management, N.C. Forest Service, N.C. Emergency Management, and the Civil Air Patrol.

Stewart said it’s common for multiple agencies in the area to respond to incidents like a downed aircraft.

“You divide and conquer, you share information and get information from these guys and you go check out a lead,” said Stewart. “Then hopefully something there points you in the right direction. Then you can build on that and end up with a positive result. It’s a hunt.”

Dillard said Emergency Management is there to support incident commanders with the logistics of coordinating resources from multiple agencies.

“We’re facilitators and enablers,” said Dillard. “We take a load off of the commanders and get them what they need and bring a lot of resources to bear.”

Stay tuned to Plateau Daily News as updates become available.

Article by Brian O’Shea and Kim Lewicki
Photos by Brian O’Shea
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Pictured at the top of the article are crews from multiple local, state, and federal agencies assisting in the search efforts on Horse Cove Road on Friday.
Pictured below are images showing the weather and terrain search teams faced on Thursday evening. Search operations were called off due to dangerous weather.

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