NTSB Report: Pilot decisions during attempted landing caused Dale Earnhardt, Jr. plane crash

Regional News

CARTER COUNTY, TENN. (WJHL) – Several decisions made by the pilots flying a plane carrying NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. caused the aircraft to crash at Elizabethton Municipal Airport a year ago, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday.

According to the report, the crash was caused by the pilot’s decision to continue landing despite an “unstabilized” approach, which caused the plane to bounce several times during the attempted landing. The bounced landing led to a loss of control of the craft, the report said, which in turn led to the plane’s crash landing.

The report also said that the pilot failed to deploy speedbrakes during touchdown, an action that could have prevented the plane from leaving the runway.

The plane’s two pilots reported to NTSB investigators in a preliminary report that they attempted a “go-around” (a common maneuver used by pilots to discontinue one landing and attempt another landing), but the “airplane did not respond as expected.”

The final report says that the pilots should have attempted the go-around before touching down, but they continued the landing even though they recognized that their approach was “unstablized.”

The airplane bounced a total of four times, according to the report, and calculations from the manufacturer estimate that the plane could have stopped within the length of the runway had the pilots kept the speedbrakes and wheel brakes deployed during the first touchdown and had the plane not bounced.

Transcripts from the voice recorder in the cockpit indicate that the pilot deployed the speed brakes before its first touchdown, but the copilot said, “well you should get rid of those (speed brakes) because we don’t wanna get a (Crew Alerting System) or a thing sent to ya.”

The pilot said he’d ready the thrust reversers about eight seconds later.

According to the manufacturer, “speed brake extension at touchdown has a ‘significantly greater effect’ than thrust reverser use.

The report also details that the Earnhardt family struggled to escape the plane after the crash. According to the report, passengers were unable to open the emergency escape hatch near the rear of the plane.

Investigators determined that a metal post torn from a chain-link fence that the plane tore through during its crash landing impaled the escape hatch, preventing it from opening.

The cabin-entry door, the only other way passengers could escape, was also jammed, likely because the door handle was pinned against the ground and couldn’t be extended.

The co-pilot managed to partially open the cabin door, allowing the three passengers to escape.

You can read the report below:

The plane landed in a fiery crash at the Elizabethton Municipal Airport last year. The plane’s two pilots were able to escape along with the Earnhardt family as flames overtook the aircraft, leaving a charred husk on Highway 91 for several hours afterward.

Preliminary reports released soon after the crash indicated that the plane bounced at least twice before “coming down hard” on the right-wing landing gear. Videos of the incident show the plane speeding down the runway with the wing trailing on the asphalt and smoke billowing behind it.

The failed landing sent the plane beyond the runway, through a patch of grass and a chain-link fence and over a 25-foot-wide creek before it came to a rest about 400 feet away from the runway.

The plane’s landing gear and nose gear separated as it came to a rest near Highway 91, and a fire began spreading through the aircraft as its pilots and passengers fled from the wreckage.

Earnhardt Jr. received treatment at Johnson City Medical Center for minor injuries. None of the other four occupants – or the racer’s dog – were seriously injured in the incident.

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