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News Macon residents survive Clay County plane crash

A Franklin couple and a Highlands man feel very fortunate to have received only minor injuries after they were involved in a plane crash on Saturday.

Tony Shuler and his wife Janet were flying with veteran pilot Gary Schmitt from Franklin to Brasstown, N.C., in a small single- engine plane when the engine stalled around 5 p.m. Shortly after it crash landed in a field on Waldorf Drive in the Brasstown community.

Schmitt and the Shuler's were airlifted to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn. The couple was released the following day, but as of Tuesday, Schmitt remained at the hospital in stable condition.

Shuler sustained broken bones in his leg with cuts to his head. His wife, Janet, sustained several broken ribs and cuts to the head.

The group was flying in a Helio Courier, a plane made in the 1960's and commonly used by the military.

Deputy Wingate of the Clay County Sheriff's Department reported that “the plane suffered some kind of engine failure possibly due to being out of fuel.” The FAA is conducting the investigation and have not released the official cause of the failure.

Shuler said that the plane had about 60 gallons of fuel when it left the Macon County airpor, adding that such planes typically planes burn about 15 gallons every hour. It is only about a 20 minute flight from Franklin to Brasstown.

An eyewitness on the ground who recognized Schmitt’s plane later told him that she could smell gasoline when he flew over.

Shuler is also a licensed pilot, and he assisted Schmitt when the engine failed. He said that he was in the front seat and when the engine stalled he began switching tanks and other things that he was trained to do in an emergency.

Shuler and Schmitt found a field that they could land in, however, they were able to get the engine started again. Therefore, the two men decided that they could make it to the private airport they were originally headed for. However, the engine stalled again. There was another field nearby but it had power and phone lines stretched across it.

According to Shuler, the two pilots were able to fly the plane for 5-7 minutes after the engine stalled. He also said that there was a head wind that slowed the plane down and they were lower than they wanted to be.

“If we had been a little higher,” Shuler said, “we probably would have made it to the airport strip.” Shuler and Schmitt were finally able to bring the plane down in a hayfield in front of Dean Gillette's home. The crash site was only 1/10-2/10 of a mile away from the airport that they were going to.

Gillette was mowing his lawn when he noticed the plane was in trouble and watched it as the wing clipped treetops and crashed. He reported that he thought the plane was only going about 40-45 miles per hour. He immediately rushed over to assist Schmitt and the Shuler's out of the plane.

Shuler said that both he and Schmitt were trained and prepared for such emergencies and remained calm through the whole ordeal, doing “just what we had to.”

“The experience in that cockpit made all the difference,” he said. “Planes like that were built for shorter distance landings, so we were just very fortunate. Ninety-five percent of people that are involved in plane crashes don't survive.”


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