ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. – The National Transportation Safety Board has revealed what likely caused the plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family to crash at Tennessee’s Elizabethton Municipal Airport on Thursday afternoon.
Senior NTSB Investigator Ralph Hicks said in a press conference Friday afternoon that collapsed right-side landing gear led to the incident, which saw the Cessna Citation aircraft bounce twice while attempting to land before the landing gear failed.
From there, the plane slid off the runway, through a chain-link fence and went down into a ditch before coming back up and catching fire as it came to rest next to Highway 91 beside the airport.
All passengers onboard – Earnhardt, his wife Amy and daughter Isla, their family dog and two pilots – were able to escape the wreckage without serious injury.
Surveillance cameras in the area filmed the crash and allowed NTSB officials to view the sequence fully, leading to their preliminary findings.
“We were able to obtain surveillance footage from buildings around the area that include footage of the accident happening. It shows quite a bit,” noted Hicks. “The airplane basically bounced at least twice before coming down hard on the right (side) main landing gear. You can actually see the right-main landing gear collapsing on the video.
“The airplane continued down the runway, off the end through a fence and came to a stop on Highway 91.”
Hicks told reporters that a preliminary report about the crash is expected to be released in approximately seven days. The wreckage itself is expected to be removed and sent to Griffin, Ga., in the next 48 hours.
“We’re going to be on the scene for two or three days, documenting the perishable evidence at the site. Then we’re going to start going into the cockpit, the fuselage and then cutting the airplane up. We will document the flight controls, the engine controls and take a look at all of the systems very methodically,” explained Hicks. “The cockpit voice recorder will be sent to Washington for download, [that will occur] probably next week. It did not have a flight data recorder, however, there were avionics on board that recorded data that will be useful to us.
“Both pilots were professionally trained, and we’ve spoken to them both today, and their information they provided to us is very consistent with what we have seen in the video,” he added. “The airport itself, the runway is about 4,500-feet long. The airplane was capable of landing at this runway. We were able to walk the runway completely and found the tire skidmarks that are consistent with this airplane.
“We recorded those, and we found some pieces of small debris that were along the runway as well.”
The plane, built in 2015, featured two pilots’ seats and nine passenger seats. Multiple photos and videos of the crash scene showed the chain-link fencing that the plane went through wrapped around the aircraft itself.
Thursday’s crash occurred approximately 20 minutes after the plane departed from Statesville, N.C. Earnhardt and his family were flying to the Bristol area for this weekend’s Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race activities.
Earnhardt, an analyst for NASCAR on NBC, has been given the weekend off by the network and has since returned home to be with his family.
The preliminary incident notification released by the Federal Aviation Administration stated the aircraft “experienced (a) hard landing, bounced, departed runway and caught fire.”
A groundswell of support from fans and industry members alike was noted by Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, in an updated statement on Friday.
“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 Earnhardt Miller. “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.”