Former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family narrowly escaped a burning plane after it crashed upon landing at an Elizabethtown, Tennessee, airport last year, according to a newly released accident report.

The National Transportation Safety Administration (NTSB) released 256 pages of investigative documents related to the fiery plane crash on July 16, but did not make a final determination of the cause. The release of the report, however, signals that investigators are close to wrapping up their probe.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife Amy, their 15-month-old daughter Isla, two pilots, and the Earnhardt family’s dog survived the August 15, 2019, plane crash. The NTSB’s original report stated that the three passengers aboard the Cessna Citation Latitude suffered minor injuries and the two crew members were uninjured.

Crash landing

Mr. Earnhardt, who currently serves as a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports, was on his way to cover the NASCAR Cup Series race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway when the crash occurred.

The private jet bounced twice upon a landing attempt at Elizabethton Municipal Airport. On the third contact with the ground, the right main landing gear collapsed and the right wing contacted the runway. The plane skidded to the right, then to the left and right again before it crashed through a fence at the end of the runway, crossed a creek, and came to a stop at the edge of Tennessee Highway 91.

Once the plane stopped, Mr. Earnhardt and his family tried to escape through the rear exit door, but it would not open. At the same time, heavy smoke started billowing from the lavatory, the NTSB report said. As the bathroom fire grew, Mr. Earnhardt told investigators that he told the pilots to try to open the main cabin door, which was also jammed.

One of the pilots eventually managed to kick open the main cabin door, but only partially to open a space “roughly the size of a conventional oven.” All five people and the dog were able to escape through the opening.

Fast approach and reverse thrusters

According to the NTSB, one of the pilots stated that their approach to the runway was “maybe a little fast,” but he felt comfortable with it because that airplane model “slows down so easy.” However, the pilots were unable to abort the landing after the second bounce when it became clear they lacked runway because the thrust reversers had already been engaged. This effectively prevented the pilots from being able to throttle and return the plane to the air.

One of the pilots told the NTSB that he normally waited until the plane had slowed on the ground before deploying the thrust reversers, but he recalled possibly having his hand on the reversers upon approach and may have activated them prematurely.

The NTSB report stated that one of the pilots said he “had soul-searched the event many times since the accident and could not explain why the airspeed on final (approach) became high and the approach became unstable.”

Airplane crash litigation

Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

Other sources:
NTSB preliminary accident report
NBC News
Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting
Associated Press

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