NTSB Releases Final Report on Earnhardt Jet Accident

 - September 24, 2020, 11:18 AM

The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday released the final report on the crash of a Citation Latitude on Aug. 15, 2019, in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The two pilots and three passengers—Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife, and daughter—escaped from the burning wreckage after the jet touched down four times then finally stopped 600 feet beyond the runway threshold. 

In the report, the NTSB’s probable cause found that the accident was due to “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 deployment of the thrust reversers.”

According to the NTSB, the Latitude’s speed at the first touchdown was “about 18 knots above Vref.” The report added, “Both the pilot and copilot commented on the airplane's high speed several times during the approach. During short final, the pilot asked the copilot if he should go around, and the copilot responded, "No." Although the copilot was the director of operations for the flight department and the direct supervisor of the pilot, the pilot stated that the copilot's position did not influence his decisions as pilot-in-command nor did it diminish his command authority. Neither the pilot nor copilot called for a go-around before landing despite awareness that the approach was unstabilized.”

At the first touchdown, instead of applying speed brakes first, the pilot added reverse thrust, but the reversers didn’t unlock because the airplane bounced into the air. Calculations by manufacturer Textron Aviation showed that the Latitude “could have stopped within the length of runway available if the airplane had not bounced and the speedbrakes and wheel brakes were used at the point of the first touchdown.”

The pilot tried to go around after the third touchdown, but the thrust reversers, as previously commanded, unlocked and would not restow. The report explained that “when the airplane became airborne, the system logic cut hydraulic power to the thrust reverser actuators; thus the reversers would not stow. The thrust reversers were subsequently pulled open due to the aerodynamic forces. The pilot attempted to go around by advancing the throttles when the airplane was airborne. However, the electronic engine controls prevented the increase in engine power because the thrust reversers were not stowed.”

The final touchdown resulted in the right main gear collapsing and the Latitude went off the runway. The report stated, “The passengers and crew eventually evacuated the airplane through the main cabin door, and the airplane was destroyed in a post-accident fire.”

According to the NTSB, “the [flight manual] prohibits touch-and-go landings after the thrust reversers are deployed. It is critical for pilots to know the point at which they should not attempt a go-around; a committed-to-stop (CTS) point is the point at which a go-around or rejected landing procedure will not be initiated and the only option will be bringing the aircraft to a stop. Establishing a CTS point eliminates the ambiguity for pilots making decisions during time-critical events. The FAA issued Information for Operators 17009, ‘Committed-to-Stop Point on Landings,’ to inform operators and pilots about the importance of establishing a CTS point; however, the director of operations was not aware of the concept of a CTS point during landing."