Knoxville businessman Jim Clayton was the pilot of the company helicopter that crashed into the Tennessee River on Aug. 3, killing his brother and business partner, Joe Clayton, according to federal investigators.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board says Jim Clayton, 86, was descending toward a landing site on his property along the Tennessee River when he crashed. The helicopter went down in the water just a short distance from Jim Clayton’s home on Lake View Drive.

He was among the three survivors who escaped the wreckage unharmed, along with his grandson Flynt Griffin and Knoxville businessman John McBride.

Jim Clayton, co-founder of Clayton Homes, issued a statement in the days after the crash saying he was “devastated and completely heartbroken by the loss of my wonderful brother, Joe.”

The NTSB report includes a disclaimer that the preliminary information is subject to change and could include errors. 

“Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed,” the disclaimer reads. 

Helicopter ‘settled’ into river

The Eurocopter EC130 had finished refueling when it took off from McGhee Tyson Airport around 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3, the report shows. 

Jim Clayton began a circular approach toward the landing site on his property around 7:40 p.m. He told investigators he “was descending with low power and a 25° angle of descent; ever slowing to come to a hover at low speed over the water,” according to the report. 

Jim Clayton added power to stop descending and planned to hover to the landing site roughly 75 feet above the water. But when the pilot added power, he said, the helicopter “started to settle,” according to the report. 

When pulling to “max power” to stop the settling, the helicopter still descended into the water. The report includes an account from a passenger, who said the left skid hit the water, followed by the rotor, before the helicopter was “torqued into the water on the left side.”

An inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration said the helicopter sunk to the bottom of the Tennessee River, about 435 feet from the landing site on the property. 

Crews removed the helicopter from the Tennessee River two days after the crash.

Most of the aircraft was still intact, according to the report. The left side of the windshield had a large hole, and the window on the left door was broken out. 

Other damage was mentioned in the report, including damage to the rotor blades, which was consistent with the water impact.  

Witness said blades ‘exploded’

Robert Crawford, a nearby resident, witnessed the crash and saw the helicopter descend toward the river before hitting the water. The rotor blades “exploded” on impact, he said, and “hundreds of little pieces were floating in the water.”

In the distance, he saw the heads of survivors bobbing in the water. Rescue crews responded within 10 minutes and used underwater sonar devices to search for the fourth crash victim.

Joe Clayton’s body was recovered about 9:45 p.m., roughly two hours after the crash happened and within a few feet of where the helicopter went down. Joe Clayton was 84 years old.

Jim Clayton previously said in a news release he was cooperating with investigators from the FAA and NTSB.

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