NTSB Docket Details Earnhardt Accident Issues

 - July 20, 2020, 11:45 AM

The NTSB has released docket information on the crash of a Cessna Citation Latitude on Aug. 15, 2019 on a short VFR trip from Statesville, North Carolina, to Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee carrying race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife, and child. After a runway excursion at Elizabethton Municipal, the Latitude caught on fire and burned. The two pilots were not injured in the accident, while the three passengers suffered minor injuries, according to the NTSB.

Visibility at Elizabethton was 10 miles, the air was calm, and there were scattered clouds at 4,700 feet. The pilots calculated that the Latitude would need 3,000 of the airport’s 5,001-foot runway, and they planned to land on Runway 24, which has a displaced threshold of 902 feet. Landing weight was 27,508 pounds and Vref was 108 knots. There are no approach slope indicators on Runway 24.

In his description of the accident provided to the NTSB, the captain, flying from the left seat, wrote that target speed was set to 112 knots, but he added, “our speed at landing was around 115 to 120.” In a post-accident interview with the NTSB, according to the docket, “[The pilot] stated he was carrying extra speed on the approach because the airplane ‘slows down so easy.’”

According to a Textron Aviation engineering review of data recorded by the aircraft’s AReS recording unit and the Garmin avionics, at 4,230 feet, 6.9 nm from the 1,593-foot-high airport, the Latitude was flying at 201 kias. The initial glidepath was flown at 4.1 degrees and averaged 3.8 degrees, and the Latitude’s autothrottles were switched on and the autopilot was off.

The descent rate increased and the autothrottles reduced power to minimum. The crew selected Flaps 1 (7 degrees) and airspeed increased to 220 kias; then the power levers were manually pulled to idle and this disengaged the autothrottles.

The crew engaged the speed brakes partially to 33 degrees lever angle and a caution audio alert advised of an excessive descent rate. They added more speed brakes, then retracted them after speed dropped to that which allowed them to lower the landing gear and add Flaps 2 (15 degrees). 

A TAWS rate-of-terrain-closure audio caution sounded twice, then became a warning alert; and then the descent rate went from -1,700 fpm to -500 fpm “before resuming its previous rate,” according to the Textron Aviation report. 

Speed decreased to 174 kias and the crew selected full flaps (35 degrees). They again selected partial speed brakes, but just for five seconds. 

The Latitude crossed the displaced threshold of Runway 24 at 127 kias, according to the data. “Five seconds before touchdown, the aircraft was descending at over -1,500 fpm, which was reduced to -250 fpm two seconds before touchdown. The aircraft crossed the runway displaced threshold at 3 feet agl.”

Just after selecting full flaps, the cockpit voice recorder captured the first officer saying, “And I don’t need to tell ya, we’re really fast.”

The captain responded: “I’m at idle,” then he asked, “Do I need to go around?”

The first officer responded, “No.”

The captain then said, “I got the speed brakes out.”

The first officer said, “Well you should get rid of those because we don't wanna get a CAS m[essage] or a thing sent to ya.”

“Alright, I'll be on the T-Rs [thrust reversers] quickly,” the captain responded, just before the first touchdown.

The Latitude touched down three times before the final touchdown. The first time, the data showed it was on the runway numbers, at 126 kias, -600 fpm, and 1.4 g. The touchdown lasted 0.6 seconds, and speed brakes were not extended at this point. 

According to the Textron Aviation report, “0.4 seconds after gear-on-ground, thrust reverser deployment was commanded by moving throttles to the reverse idle position, but the aircraft was airborne again before the command could be executed. The throttles were left in the reverse idle position. The aircraft touched down a second time 1.2 seconds later for 0.4 seconds, nose first, then right main gear, at 1.6 g, but the left main gear did not register on-ground. The aircraft touched down a third time 1.8 seconds later for 0.6 seconds, at 1.7 g, on the runway thousand-foot marker. All three gear registered on-ground, the still-active thrust reverser deployment command was executed, and the thrust reversers unlocked 0.4 seconds after touchdown. The throttles were advanced to idle, sending a thrust reverser stow command nearly immediately after thrust reversers were unlocked, but aircraft gear status changed to in-air nearly simultaneously.

“As the aircraft went airborne, the in-air status triggered a cut in hydraulic power to the thrust reverser actuators, which allowed the unlocked thrust reversers to be pulled open by aerodynamic forces. The amber T/R UNLOCK CAS message posted and the Emergency Stow switches began flashing. Throttles were advanced to Max Takeoff 0.7 seconds later, but the thrust reversers reached full deployment 0.4 seconds after that, and the Fadecs prevented an increase in engine thrust. The red T/R DEPLOY CAS message posted, and the Emergency Stow switches continued to flash.”

The Latitude climbed to a maximum altitude of 24 feet for 9.6 seconds. Four seconds after advancing the throttles, the crew selected Flaps 2, and the airspeed dropped to 91 kias from 119 kias as the flaps retracted. The data showed that the power levers were moved partially back then forward then all the way back to idle.

After lowering the pitch attitude, the pitch increased and the stick-shaker activated and half a second later, the Latitude touched down at 3.2 g vertical force on the right gear then the left and with a bounce, according to the report.

“The aircraft rolled right 7.5 degrees as the left main gear contacted the ground again, which is consistent with the aircraft being supported by the left inboard tire and the right wingtip. Left inboard brake pressure increased to near maximum after the left main gear touched down, but the left outboard and right brake pressures did not increase significantly. This indicates that only the left inboard tire was firmly contacting the ground. The nose gear contacted the ground one half-second later. With all three gear on the ground, the thrust reverser system was re-energized. With throttles at idle, the thrust reversers stowed as commanded.

“Eight seconds after the final touchdown, the aircraft crossed the end of the runway, on centerline. Four seconds after that, the aircraft experienced an impact measuring 3.4 g vertically and the fuselage began rolling left. The aircraft continued to move for five more seconds, then came to rest with the fuselage rolled 42 degrees left.”

In its report on the interview with the flight crew, the NTSB wrote that after the final touchdown, “they yelled ‘hold on’ to the passengers.” After the Latitude stopped, the crew couldn’t open the main cabin door. Earnhardt and the captain tried to open the emergency overwing exit but were unable to open it. The first officer, who had already fired both engine fire bottles and switched off the batteries, was eventually able to open the cabin door partially and everyone was able to exit the airplane. 

Although the docket material is a repository of factual information about the accident and does not include any NTSB conclusions, the Textron Aviation AReS report does include some observations, notably:

“Airspeed management was a significant issue during the approach. As the descent was initiated, airspeed was 201 kias; gear, flaps, and speed brakes were retracted; and partial thrust was applied. Airspeed increased to 220 kias over the following 30 seconds, which precluded the extension of landing gear and Flaps 2, which would have provided additional drag to aid in slowing the aircraft. The need for speed reduction was evidently apparent to the crew throughout the descent, as seen by the partial extension of speed brakes and by the extension of landing gear and flaps immediately after each of their maximum extension speeds was reached.”

“Awareness of the high touchdown speed also likely contributed to the decision to deploy thrust reversers immediately after touchdown. A contributing factor was likely distraction due to terrain and navigation. The turn and descent to initiate the approach began while one ridge remained ahead. The subsequent course correction and terrain avoidance maneuvers created a distraction from speed management and configuration control as the approach resumed.”

“The misuse of thrust reversers was also a significant factor in the outcome of the flight. Thrust reverser deployment was commanded before the aircraft was firmly on the ground, and the command was still in place through the subsequent bounces. The Model 680A AFM prohibits the use of thrust reversers during touch-and-go landings. The unlocking of thrust reversers on the third bounce and their full deployment in air prevented application of forward thrust for a go-around attempt. If the throttles had been pulled back to idle then advanced again, the Fadec would have reset the idle latch, and reverse thrust would have been applied in air.”

“As shown in the landing distance calculations in section 5.3, extension of speed brakes on touchdown has a significantly greater effect on total landing distance than thrust reverser use. Even at Vref+19 knots, a landing within the available runway length was possible given a touchdown with no bounce followed by use of speed brakes and wheel brakes.”