Upland Chronicles: Plane crash claimed life of Jim Yett

May. 30, 2014 @ 04:02 PM

Photographer Jim Yett and pilot Jack Roberts boarded a two-person Cessna 150 at the Sevier-Gatlinburg Airport around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2, 1973. Yett, 30, a photographer for W.M. Cline Company, had hired Roberts, president of Smoky Mountain Aviation based at the airport, to transport him to the Cobbly Knob area near Highway 321. The purpose of the trip was for Yett to take aerial photographs of Cobbly Knob.

Roberts, 36, was a well-known fight instructor and esteemed aviator. He respected the mountains and seldom flew over them unless the weather was favorable and he was confident of his abilities. Roberts and his wife, Peggy, had operated the airport and the flying service for several years.

Since the fight only took about 15 minutes each way, the two men were expected back by mid-afternoon. By 4:30 p.m., Peggy Roberts realized that something was wrong. She decided to report the flight’s return as overdue, and a search was initiated immediately.

Within half an hour, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department and the Sevier County Rescue Squad began a ground search. Meanwhile, the Sevier County Civil Air Patrol, other CAP squadrons and Peggy Roberts divided the area for an aerial search.

After the initial search failed to produce any clues and daylight turned to darkness, the search was expanded. Throughout the chilly night, people along the flight route were questioned, and back roads and open fields were checked. At 3:30 a.m., additional searchers were summoned.

At 6 a.m., the Tennessee Highway Patrol sent a helicopter to the airport. Just as the sun came up, the helicopter announced that it was hovering over the crash site of a small airplane matching the plane’s description.

Ground teams arrived at the mouth of Noisy Creek where it crosses under present-day Highway 321. An hour later, the team located the damaged aircraft lying beside the creek. Inside, the searchers discovered the bodies of the two men.

The exact cause of the crash has remained a mystery, but authorities revealed that the aircraft apparently developed engine trouble while flying over the Cobbly Knob Golf Course. Residents reported hearing the plane sputter. The plane was just inside the national park when it lost power and the pilot stalled into the tops of some poplars.

The aircraft fell through the canopy of trees, and just before it struck the ground, it inverted and came to rest upside down almost perfectly intact. The left wing folded onto the right wing. It is believed the two men died immediately.

Known as Jim, James Ellis Yett was born May 29, 1943. He was the son of Claude Miller Yett and Margaret Amanda Ellis Yett. He grew up on a farm near Sevierville. His father operated Yett’s Store and his uncle, John Yett, managed the farm operation.

“Jim was a mischievous boy. He was always getting into situations when we were growing up,” recalled his cousin Bill Yett. “He never met a stranger, and everybody liked him.”

As an adolescent, Yett liked fast cars. One evening he was driving his father’s 1957 Buick when he was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. “Was I driving too fast?” Yett calmly asked the officer. “90 miles an hour,” the trooper replied. “Oh! Sorry, but I was playing the radio so loud I didn’t realize how fast I was going,” was his feeble response.

After graduating from Sevier County High School, Yett and his friend Ronnie Williams joined the U.S. Navy together, through the Navy Buddy Enlistment Program. During the Vietnam War, Yett served aboard the USS Eldorado, the flagship for the Commander Amphibious Forces Pacific Fleet in rotation with USS Estes.

On the advice of his neighbor, John W. Grim, Yett apprenticed as a photographer. Grim had told him stories of his own experiences as a photographer on the famed battleship USS Missouri.

Jim’s friend, Williams, remained in the Navy for 26 years, retiring as a master chef.

The photography training Yett received in the Navy enabled him to find a job as a cameraman at WBIR-TV studio in Knoxville when he returned home. Although he was promoted to director, Yett resigned from WBIR to work as a photographer at W.M. Cline Company, where he was working at the time of his death.

One of his duties at the TV station was shooting live the popular “Mull Singing Convention,” a live broadcast hosted by Rev. J. Bazzel Mull, which aired on Sunday mornings. Soon Yett had acquired a repertoire of colorful “J. Bazzel and Mizz Mull” stories that he amused his friends with.

In 1966, Yett was introduced to Kathy Huff at Johnson’s Drive-In in Gatlinburg. She was eight years younger than him, and at first Kathy turned down his request for a date. Yett was persistent, and they soon began dating.

“For the next five years we saw each other almost every day. If he was out of town he wrote a letter to me every day,” recalled Kathy.

They married on Feb. 14, 1971. Kathy was one of four children of Gavin Clint Huff and Mildred Sims Huff. The couple moved into a small frame house on the Yett farm that had been built in 1940 as a wedding gift for his parents and where he lived as a child.

By 1973, Yett’s photography career was taking off. Assisted by his attractive young wife, he started a side business photographing weddings and special events as well as portraits. One of his photographs had been published in National Geographic magazine.

Friends and relatives gathered on Monday, Nov. 5, 1973, at Shiloh Cemetery to pay their final respects to Jim Yett. Those who knew him will always fondly remember the mischievous boy with blonde hair who enamored himself to everyone he knew with his forthright personality.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.