Pilot error was the probable cause and the findings of the NTSB in the 2019 plane crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family.
A 15-page final report was released Wednesday afternoon. It cited, “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues, and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion.
“Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after the deployment of the thrust reversers.”
Earnhardt was on his way to Bristol Motor Speedway August 15 for his role on the NBC Sports broadcast. The crash occurred as the Textron Aviation Inc 680 aircraft was attempting to land in Elizabethton, Tenn.
The NTSB reported noted the preflight, departure, and cruise portions of the flight were uneventful. Onboard were two pilots, Earnhardt along with his wife Amy, daughter Isla, and dog Gus. Neither pilot was injured, while minor injuries were reported to the three passengers.
On the events leading up the landing, the NTSB report states:
“As the approach continued, the airplane crossed a ridgeline at 710 ft above ground level, which triggered a terrain awareness and warning system alert. Further, the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.
“At (about 1 minute 52 seconds before landing), the pilot pulled back the throttles to idle, where they stayed for the remainder of the approach. In an attempt to slow the airplane for landing, the pilot partially extended the speedbrakes when the airplane was below 500 (feet above ground level), which is prohibited in the airplane flight manual. Five seconds before touchdown, the airplane’s descent rate was 1,500 ft per minute, which exceeded the maximum allowed for landing per the (manual) of 600 fpm.”
The plane bounced a total of four times. On the fourth attempt, “the airplane touched down hard and the right main landing gear then collapsed under the wing.”
After the plane ran off the runway, it caught fire. Initially, those on board were unable to get the cabin entry door open. After also failing to get the emergency escape hatch open, a second attempt was successful, and all were able to exit the aircraft. The plane was destroyed in the fire.
Earnhardt did not participate in the weekend’s broadcast after the accident. He returned to the track the following week not only as a commentator but with a top-five run in the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.