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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Plane Crash Was Pilot Error: NTSB Final Report

The 2019 incident involved a complex succession of pilot actions and aircraft system overrides that might have ended far worse than a burned-up airplane.

The emergency escape hatch of Dale Earnhardt, Jr's plane impaled by a metal fence post. Photo courtesy of NTSB
The emergency escape hatch of Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s plane impaled by a metal fence post. Photo courtesy of NTSB

When things are said and done, the crash in August 2019 of a Cessna 680 Sovereign in Elizabethton, Tennessee, could have been and most likely should have been a lot worse. Five people survived the crash, in which the business jet landed fast and long, and went off the runway, with three of them suffering minor injuries and two others with no injuries at all. All five people aboard the jet escaped moments after it overran the runway and moments before it burst into flames and was destroyed.

None of it would have happened if not for a series of pilot errors, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the accident. The main takeaway, the report’s authors wrote, is that the jet came in to the relatively short runway 24 (just 5001 feet, though well within the Sovereign’s capabilities) too fast and mis-configured. The pilots then attempted to save the landing multiple times and then attempted a go-around with the thrust reversers partially deployed, which the aircraft’s safety systems did not allow. In the end, the plane, after bouncing four times, crunched its gear and slid off the end of the runway. People evacuated, and the plane caught fire and was destroyed.

In its report, the Board found that the crew failed to stabilize the approach or follow the required procedures specified in the aircraft’s manual. According to the report, “The AFM [Aircraft Flight Manual] included three checklists to be completed during approach and landing: the approach checklist, the before landing checklist, and the landing checklist. The before landing checklist included lowering the landing gear, selecting full flaps, and confirming Vref; the landing checklist included extending speedbrakes at touchdown then deploying thrust reversers after nosewheel touchdown.”

The report cites the unstablized approach and incorrect deployment of lift dump devices, which added up to cause the plane to cross the threshold at 126 knots instead of the correct-for-the-conditions 108-knot Vref speed. The crew failed to deploy speed brakes upon landing, though it was more of a hard bounce than a landing. They instead deployed the plane’s speed brakes, though not fully. And the deployment of the thrust reversers was a circus, with the airplane’s safety logic at one point preventing their deployment (which is why the procedure is speed brakes first, thrust reversers second) since the aircraft had become airborne again—thrust reversers can be deployed only when there’s weight on the wheels (WOW), for the obvious reason that airborne deployment of them would be catastrophic. Finally, after the third bounce, they deployed from the air pressure on them from being partially opened earlier in the accident sequence.

Once it apparently became clear to the pilot flying that there was insufficient distance remaining to get stopped, he attempted to go around, which at that point most likely would have been catastrophic, but again the airplane’s logic prevented that from happening, as the thrust reversers had been blown fully open by the airflow.

By the time the plane was down for good, with the right main gear leg having collapsed, there was 1,120 feet of paved surface remaining, that is, the runway and the 97-foot displaced threshold of Runway 6, the opposite-direction runway. 

The approach of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s plane, including speed and use of speedbrakes (in yellow), landing gear, and flaps.
The approach of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s plane, including speed and use of speedbrakes (in yellow), landing gear,
and flaps.

The arrival concluded thusly, again from the NTSB report:

“Airport surveillance video showed that the right main landing gear collapsed at 1538:04 and that the outboard section of the right wing contacted the runway immediately thereafter. The airplane then departed the 97-ft-long paved surface beyond the end of the runway and traveled through a 400-ft-long open area of grass, down an embankment, through a creek, through a chain-link fence, and up an embankment. Photographs of the accident scene showed that the airplane came to rest on the edge of a four-lane highway about 600 ft beyond the runway threshold. In postaccident interviews with the flight crew, they reported that they secured the engines after the airplane came to a stop and assisted the passengers with the evacuation through the main entry door as a postaccident fire erupted, which eventually destroyed the airplane.

The NTSB report can be found here. It’s harrowing reading but an excellent reminder about how critical it is to follow flight manual recommendations, especially in turbine-powered aircraft, and to stabilize the approach. A go-around takes a few minutes but is invariably far more convenient than the alternative, remembering, of course, that accidents like this one seldom end with everyone walking away.


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