A small plane crash in Tennessee that killed weight-loss guru Gwen Shamblin Lara and six others likely happened when her husband piloting the plane — actor Joe Lara — became disoriented in heavy clouds, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board says.
Joe Lara, who played Tarzan in the 1990s TV series “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures," was flying a Cessna C501 on March 29, 2021, when the aircraft plunged into Percy Priest Lake, minutes after takeoff from an airport just outside Nashville.
Flight track data found that the plane “made a series of heading changes, along with several climbs and descents, before it entered a steep, descending left turn,” according to the crash report released Wednesday.
The maneuvering is consistent with a type of spatial disorientation called somatogravic illusion, and it likely caused the pilot to perceive that the airplane was pitching up even though it was actually in a continuous descent, according to an NTSB performance study.
Lara was rated to fly with instruments only, but William Lardent, a local flight instructor who had flown with Lara several times in the Cessna that crashed, told investigators Lara would struggle when forced to rely on instruments in low visibility and while using the plane’s autopilot.
Lardent said Lara was a safe pilot but had trouble with multitasking and with situational awareness.
“Mr. Lara could not visualize in his mind where the airplane was in time/space unless he saw it on his iPad,” according to an NTSB account of the interview.
“Mr. Lara wanted to fly to bigger cities like New York and Las Vegas, but Mr. Lardent told him he was not ready because those areas were congested and you ‘had to be on your game’ to operate in those fast-moving environments," according to the document.
Witnesses to the crash included a fisherman who “heard what he thought was a low flying military jet before he saw the airplane impact the lake in a ‘straight down’ attitude with the nose of the airplane impacting the water first,” according to the report.
Post-accident examination of the wreckage revealed no obvious mechanical malfunctions with the aircraft, and investigators believe it is unlikely that any medical condition of the pilot or co-pilot were a factor in the crash.
Rutherford County officials previously identified the other victims as Brandon Hannah, David L. Martin, Jennifer J. Martin, Jessica Walters and Jonathan Walters. They, along with the Laras, were all from nearby Brentwood. They had planned to travel to Palm Beach.
Gwen Shamblin Lara founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood in 1999 and wrote a faith-based weight loss book.