NTSB releases preliminary report on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s plane crash

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The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Friday detailing the circumstances that led to a fiery plane crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family. 

The preliminary report, which is not final, appears to indicate the plane may have been traveling too fast for the amount of landing space at the airport in Elizabethton, T.N., which a FOX 46 investigation first reported. 

According to the NTSB, the plane's takeoff from Statesville Regional Airport, and the flight to Elizabethton Municipal Airport, were routine. When the 2015 Cessna Citation Latitude jet approached the small airport, the crew announced their intentions to land on the runway. The airport's surveillance video then captured the moments that led up to the crash.

Officials say the airplane touched down and bounced twice, then continued airborne down runway 24 until it touched down a third time with about 1,000 ft of runway remaining. The right main landing gear then collapsed, and the right wing hit the runway shortly after the third touchdown.

"An airplane should never bounce," said Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor with nearly 40 years experience. "That only happens when the airspeed is excessive at touchdown and the airplane begins to float until the airspeed bleeds off but by then, valuable pavement for stopping is behind the airplane."

    The plane skidded off the runway through an open area of grass, the report says, cutting through a chain-link fence, and coming to rest on the edge of Tennessee Highway 91.

    "In my opinion, the pilot was coming in way too fast to land on only 4581 ft of available runway," Katz said. 

    NTSB says the pilots' account of the incident was consistent with surveillance video. The pilot said after the second bounce, a "go-around" - when the pilot lifts off again and circles the airport back to the runway - was attempted, but the airplane did not respond as expected. The crew landed straight on the runway and couldn't stop the plane. 

    After the plane came to rest, the flight crew secured the engines, but a fire broke out. The pilots helped evacuate Earnhardt Jr., his wife Amy and their daughter, Isla, through the main entry door, according to the report.

    The left main and nose landing gear came off during the impact, while the right main landing gear remained intact, but was heavily damaged by fire, the report said.

    NTSB officials say the pilot had logged 5,800 hours total flight experience and was last trained in October 2018. The copilot has an airline transport pilot certificate and 11,000 hours total flight experience. His latest training was also in October 2018.

    The wreckage was taken from the site for further evaluation. 

    A final NTSB report could take a year to complete.