Where Is the Browning Knob Plane Crash? Finding the Lost Wreckage

Plane crash site on Browning Knob

Weather was likely a factor in this plane crash nearly 40 years ago in North Carolina, where the wreckage remains (photo by Justin Colburn/Alamy stock)

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“He was right on course,” the Civil Air Patrol Major explained to a Chicago newspaper in the winter of 1983. “He was just a little low.”

Ernest Martin, founder and owner of Martin Tool Works, Inc., was the “he” in question.

Martin had emigrated from Germany sometime after the war, building a company and a fortune in the Chicago area.  

Martin was flying his secretary, Centa Jarrett, from Illinois to visit her children who lived in Bryson City with their father. He had friends in the area and had flown into the Jackson County Airport before.

However, on that fateful day, he was apparently unaware or unconcerned by the weather awaiting him.

In fact, he didn’t file a flight plan as required in that situation. In addition to that, he’d been drinking a little – the FAA reported a blood-alcohol level of .04 percent.  

Browning Knob plane crash history

When the weather turned – low lying clouds and rain – he began ducking the plane under the clouds.

It was an attempt to keep his bearings, which the FAA referred to as up and down altitude excursions. 

It was a plan that worked, until it didn’t. 

He was right on course, after all, just a little low.

The plane slammed into the mountain, killing Martin and his passenger immediately.

Martin likely would have made it the rest of the way without much incident, had he been a couple of hundred feet higher.

Plane crash site in Browning Knob
A large portion of the Cessna is still up on the mountain in North Carolina (photo by Justin Colburn/Alamy stock)

The wreckage was found near Waterrock Knob Peak

Members of the Civil Air Patrol found the wreckage near the summit of Waterrock Knob Peak a week later. They also found the frozen bodies of the two victims who had sadly died on impact.

Much of the eight-seat Cessna 414A is still up there on the mountain.

In fact, it is one of dozens of unsalvageable flying machines that crashed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have been left where they came to rest. 

The human remains, of course, were returned to the family, and the engines and anything else of value were salvaged. 

The rest of the debris is slowly being reclaimed by the forest or has been carried off by visitors over the years.

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The shattered hull has proven a popular spot for graffiti. And it appears to have had some holes kicked into it as well. 

It is equal parts morbid and fascinating.

Certainly, it is a stark reminder of how powerless we really are in the face of nature. As well as what happens when we take the majesty of flight for granted.

It is the modern-day retelling of the Icarus story of flying too close to the sun. Or perhaps in this case, maybe not quite close enough. 

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How do you get to the Browning Knob plane crash?

The moderately difficult two-mile hike begins at the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and trailhead in Sylva, North Carolina.

The path is clear and paved for the first bit before turning to dirt and leading up several stone staircases.

The hike offers epic and sweeping views of the North Carolina mountains, including from one of the spurs, a glimpse of Ghost Town in Maggie Valley off in the distance.  

The trail to the Browning Knob plane crash site is called Plott Balsams and is unofficial. It is often used but remains off the beaten path. It’s a very good idea to tell multiple people where you are heading, and it’s probably not a trail you should tackle alone

A view of Waterrock Knob in North Carolina (photo by Jill Lang/stock.adobe.com)

The trail from Waterrock Knob

From Waterrock Knob, which is named for the spring near the summit where hunters would refill their canteens, the trail is small, mostly unmarked and easily missed.

A couple of homemade signs nailed to trees a short ways down the path offer tips and warnings for proceeding ahead.

And some of the trees along the trail have been marked with yellow spray paint to make it easier. 

The path is moderately difficult with roots and downed trees and muddy patches to negotiate. 

Once you reach Browning Knob, you should see another unmarked trail to the left. Down that trail about 100 feet, you’ll be able to see the plane in the distance down the hill.

Again, this area is full of little trails or paths and steep drops.

It’s a good idea to have someone with you. You won’t be far from the visitors’ center, but with the thick canopy, it’s not a great place to be lost in the mountains. 

The entire trek to the plane and back is a little more than two miles round trip. The terrain is fairly difficult with a change in elevation of about 600 feet. 

Have you hiked at Waterrock? Did you see the plane crash site? Let us know in the comments.

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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