The NTSB has released its preliminary report on the accident involving the mid-sized Citation business jet that crashed on landing almost two weeks ago in Tennessee with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and his family aboard.
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The flight was a 125-mile VFR jog from a small town in North Carolina to a small town in Tennessee. The passengers were auto racing legend Dale Earnhardt, Jr., his wife, kids and two dogs. The jet was a four-year-old Cessna Citation Latitude, a high-end mid-sized jet with a sterling safety record. And the crew flying it was long in experience, both in total piloting time and time in type, which means, in that particular model of airplane.
All of which is to say that it was the kind of flight that seemed like a stroll around the block, that is, until it turned deadly serious.
The flight departed North Carolina’s Statesville Regional Airport. The destination airport, Elizabethton, Tennessee (0A9), runs parallel to a mountain ridgeline. The Citation set up to land straight in on the southwestern runway.
As the Citation approached to land straight in on Runway 24, there were no signs of anything amiss. But the landing went badly. The plane wound up bouncing three times, the third time with only about 1,000 feet of the 4,529-foot-long runway remaining. At that point the right main gear leg collapsed and the right wing hit the runway surface, sending the plane out of control. According to the NTSB report, it then “…departed the paved surface beyond the runway 24 departure end threshold, through an open area of grass, down an embankment, through a chain-link fence, and up an embankment, coming to rest on the edge of Tennessee Highway 91.”
The cause of the crash is under investigation, though at this point there’s little in the preliminary report to suggest any issues with weather, with the plane, with the runway or with the crew’s readiness.
There’s one line in the report that’s hard to parse: “The pilots also reported that, following the second bounce, a go-around was attempted; however, the airplane did not respond as expected, so they landed straight-ahead on the runway and could not stop the airplane prior to the excursion.”
That one phrase, that the plane didn’t “respond as expected” is too vague to know what to make of it. Did the application of power not result in any additional thrust, or was there some other anomaly? It’s a question we hope the NTSB addressed in some detail in the final report, when that comes out months down the road.
One thing is clear, though. The Earnhardts, the pilots and the two pet dogs aboard are lucky to be alive. Lesser accidents have indeed been catastrophic.
The two factors that kept this from being tragic are possibly, first, that the pilots weren’t able to get the plane airborne after the second bounce. Getting a compromised plane into the air again requires the pilots to get it successfully around the pattern and then back on the ground once more, in the process introducing a number of variables, especially if the plane were already damaged, which is possible, even if its gear didn’t collapse until the third bounce. The other factor is that the terrain they encountered on the plane’s out-of-control departure from the runway environment left the plane largely in one piece. Had there been more severe terrain along the jet’s departure slide, the prospects would’ve been far less favorable for all aboard.
We’ll keep you apprised as we learn more from the NTSB’s probe.