Ralph Hicks, a senior National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the team assembled to investigate the airplane accident involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family has obtained and already viewed surveillance video of the incident.
“The airplane basically bounced at least twice before coming down hard on the right main landing gear, and you can actually see the right main landing gears collapsing on the video,” said Hicks. “The airplane continued on down the runway, through a fence and it came to a stop … here on Highway 91.”
The aircraft featured two seats for the pilot and nine passenger seats. It was built in 2015.
Earnhardt, wife Amy, daughter Isa, their dog Gus, and the two pilots escaped serious injury Thursday afternoon when the private plane skidded off the runway and then caught fire while landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, Tenn. According to Hicks, the plane went down into a ditch and came back up before coming to rest adjacent to the highway.
In numerous photos and videos from the scene, the chain-link fence the plane went through can be seen wrapped around the aircraft.
Earnhardt was traveling to Bristol Motor Speedway where he was scheduled to be a part of the NBC Sports broadcast team for this weekend’s NASCAR events. However, he and his family returned home Thursday night and Earnhardt will not work this weekend.
Hicks offered additional details in a press conference at the crash site Friday afternoon, including how the crash occurred approximately 20 minutes after the plane departed from Statesville, N.C.
Hicks said investigators will be on the scene for two or three days documenting perishable evidence before going into the cockpit and fuel cell, and the remains of the airplane will be cut apart. The condition of the flight controls, engine controls and all other systems will also be documented.
The aircraft had a voice recorder, which will be sent to NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C., probably in the next week.
Both pilots, who were described as professionally trained and who serve as Earnhardt’s regular pilots, have already spoken with investigators. The information they provided was “very consistent with the video.” Noting the runaway at Elizabethton is about 4,500 feet long, Hicks said the plane was capable of landing on that runaway.
The Earnhardt family has also spoken to investigators and their comments were also consistent with the video.
“We were able to walk the runway completely from one end to the wreckage site and we were able to find skid marks and tire track marks that are consistent with this airplane,” said Hicks. “So we recorded those and we found a few pieces of small debris that were along the runaway as well.”
A preliminary report will be released in about seven days that will feature basic information. Hicks made it clear this part of the investigation is about fact-finding.
“You can visually see the airplane balloon up and then come back down,” Hicks explained when asked how the airplane bounced. “Exactly how high it went, we’re going to be using our flight data information that we have from the avionics to tell us that, but we can’t tell exactly from the video right now.
“A firm landing. It was described as firm.”
The accident occurred about 1,000 feet past the end of the runaway. All on board were able to evacuate before the fire broke out, but Hicks said he could not say for sure when the fire started.
Friday morning a preliminary incident notification from the FAA also stated the plane “experienced (a) hard landing, bounced, departed runway and caught fire.”
“We want to reiterate our appreciation to the NASCAR community, first responders, medical staff, and race fans everywhere for the overwhelming support in the last 24 hours,” said Kelley Earnhardt Miller in a statement. “Dale, Amy, Isla and our two pilots are doing well. We are assisting the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board in the investigation and will have no further comment at this time.”