Airport where Earnhardt Jr. family crashed "not a smart choice" to land, expert says

The airport where racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family crashed on Thursday was "not a smart choice" to land, according to one commercial airline pilot and certified flight instructor with nearly 40 years of experience.

"I think the weak link of the chain is going to be the performance of the pilot, not the airplane," pilot Robert Katz said, based on his professional experience. 

The short runway at Elizabethton Municipal Airport was extended by 500 feet this year, bringing it to a little over 5000 feet. That leaves little room for pilot error, Katz said.


"It's not a smart choice because it cuts the margin that the pilot has to work with," said Katz.

Conditions were clear at the time of the crash. According to Katz, the nearly 90 degree temperatures that day meant the air was less dense so the plane had to fly faster. 

It's a "challenging approach" for a heavy jet, Katz said. It's also a questionable choice, given that the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, located 13 miles away, had a runway that was 3000 feet longer, which would have been a safer option, Katz said. 

"Whenever I hear an airplane going off the end of a runway, it usually means the pilot did not manage the approach properly," said Katz. "I think he came in too fast and probably touched down too far down from the approach end of the runway, not leaving himself enough pavement to roll to a stop."

A witness told FOX 46 the pilot "overshot" the runway.

It's unclear why the pilot landed at Elizabethon or how fast the plane was traveling.

The 2015 Cessna Citation Latitude business jet, worth more than $10 million, is registered to JR Motorsports - Earnhardt Jr.'s racing team - based out of Mooresville, N.C.

Katz says it's a "miracle" no one was killed.

"That's jet fuel that's burning," he said of the thick black smoke seen coming out of the wreckage. "I think it's an absolute miracle everyone got out of there alive."

The NTSB is working to determine the cause of the crash. Preliminary findings could be available in 10 days. A final report could take up to a year to complete.