The National Transportation Safety Board released a trove of documents and photos this week detailing the moments leading up to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane crash in Elizabethton last year, indicating the primary issue was an inability to abort the landing after the plane bounced off the runway for a second time.
Earnhardt Jr. was traveling into Elizabethton to work the NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway last August with his wife, infant daughter and dog when their plane bounced twice off the runway, came down hard and skidded past the runway before catching fire next to Tenn. Highway 91.
Neither pilot suffered injuries, while there were minor injuries to the passengers.
According to a written statement from pilot Jeff Melton, the plane’s approach was “maybe a little fast,” but the other pilot, Richard Pope, said he was carrying extra speed because the airplane “slows down so easy.”
Pope told NTSB investigators that the initial touchdown, just past the runway’s numbers, was “pretty hard” and the plane “came back up” off the runway. During that time, thrust reversers were applied before the plane bounced off the runway a second time.
Melton said that, at that point, they decided to attempt a go-around but the power “never comes” after they increased thrust to abort the landing. Melton did not try to use the emergency thrust reverser stow switches during the attempt.
After the second bounce, the plane climbed to about 25 feet before the pilots — realizing there was not available thrust to perform a go-around — tried to land the plane on what runway was left. The third touchdown occurred about halfway down the airport’s 4,500-foot long runway, while the NTSB initially reported that the third touchdown occurred with about 1,000 feet of runway remai-ning. The aircraft flight com-puter stated the plane needed about 3,000 feet for landing.
The final touchdown collapsed the right main landing gear, which made the plane skid to the right. Both pilots were “on the brakes” at this point, they told investigators. The plane overran the runway and skidded about 400 feet into the grass and across a small creek, which separated the plane’s front and left landing gear.
The plane came to rest next to Tenn. 91 and caught fire.
Earnhardt Jr. told investigators he tried to open the over-wing emergency exit without success. Pope was assisting, but the door would not budge. While this was happening, smoke began filling the aircraft from the lavatory, with fire visible inside.
Earnhardt Jr. told Melton to try the main door — which they couldn’t open initially. Melton was able to force the main door open enough for everyone to escape. Earnhardt Jr. said the opening was about the size of an oven.
The evacuation took roughly 2-3 minutes. The first emergency call went out seconds after the accident.
A witness, 25-year Air Force veteran Cheryl Campbell, said she was driving when she witnessed the crash, noting the right landing gear appeared to have collapsed. As she watched the aircraft burst into flames, Campbell raced to the downed plane to assist. The passengers and crew managed to get out just as Campbell was approaching.
“I was driving and quite frankly, staring at the airport runway as I drove,” Campbell wrote. “I have trained as a private pilot, spent 25 years in the USAF and spent the past 21 years as a flight attendant for a major airline.
“It was an instinct for me to run to the aircraft after watching it crash,” she continued. “I’m so very thankful all passengers were OK.”
Speaking to investigators, Pope said he may have deployed the thrust reversers too early, and reported their landing flare — the time between final approach and touchdown — may have been inadequate.
Melton told investigators he had “soul-searched the event many times since the accident and could not explain why the airspeed on final became high and the approach became unstable.”
Both Melton and Pope were experienced pilots with over 15,000 flying hours between them. The crew said they had also flown into Elizabethton multiple times and liked flying there. According to the NTSB’s record of conversation with the flight crew, neither pilot reported having performed an aborted or balked landing as attempted during the flight, or having performed one during simulator training.
The documents, totaling 256 pages, also indicate that there were no issues with the engines or other parts of the aircraft. A date of release for the final report has not been set.