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Photos Show Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was Lucky to Survive a Potentially Tragic Plane Crash

Getting wrecked while doing 180 mph at Talladega Superspeedway is spooky, but at least drivers are ensconced in vehicles containing every safety feature NASCAR can dream up and have only themselves to worry about. Enduring a plane crash with his family on board had to be a far worse experience for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The photos from the crash scene in Elizabethton, Tennessee, confirm it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife, and child were aboard

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Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his family, and two pilots survived without significant injuries after their small plane crashed and caught fire during a landing at Elizabethon Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on Aug. 15, 2019.

The plane skidded through a chain-link fence off the runway, but Earnhardt, his wife and daughter, and two pilots were able to escape the wreckage and take safety as rescue crews raced to the scene. A dog also escaped harm.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the airport.

Earnhardt, who retired from racing after the 2017 season with 26 career victories on the top NASCAR circuit, was en route to Bristol Motor Speedway, where he was scheduled to participate in race coverage for NBC. His wife and daughter were going to continue on to Texas.

The flight originated at Statesville Regional Airport in North Carolina.

‘A little fast’ at the landing

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The NTSB has now released more than 250 pages of information and photos related to the 2019 plane crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family. The documentation said investigators obtained written statements from pilots Jeffrey Melton and Richard Pope as well as the assistant airport manager and another witness. 

The final NTSB report is expected to be released soon, but the update provided 11 months after the incident sheds light on the near-tragedy. The key takeaway from the report is that investigators found no issues with the engines or other mechanical workings of the 2015 Cessna Latitude.

According to Pope, the plane’s approach to the runway was “maybe a little fast” because the plane “slows down so easy.” The thrust reversers engaged upon touchdown, Pope said, but an aborted landing was called for and the pilots were not able to get the plane back more than 25 feet in the air before coming back down.

Pope said in his statement that he might have accidentally deployed the thrust reversers too quickly.

The pilots attempted to stop while using what remained of the runway, but the plane listed to the right as the landing gear collapsed, causing the right wing to scrape the ground. The plane rolled off the runway and 400 feet down a grass hill.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., family, and crew escape the wreckage

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By the time the plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr., wife Amy, and the others stopped, part of the landing gear and the nose gear separated from the rest of the aircraft.

The first attempt to open the main cabin door failed, and Earnhardt and pilot Richard Pope could see smoke coming from the lavatory as they unsuccessfully tried opening the emergency exit door over the wing. Once flames became visible, the report said, Earnhardt told Melton to try the main cabin door again.

Melton kicked the main door and was able to push it out far enough to provide an escape route. Earnhardt handed his daughter to one of the pilots, squeezed through the opening, and took 16-month-old Isla again. The others followed him out the door.

A retired Air Force officer who later worked as an airline flight attendant, saw the accident while driving and told investigators she came to the scene as the passengers were escaping the wreckage. She encountered Earnhardt, who was complaining of a back injury.

“He repeatedly asked about his wife and daughter and seemed not to understand or hear, however I assured him each time trying to calm him.”

Crash witness Cheryl Campbell

The crew estimated that the evacuation took two to three minutes.