As flames neared, jet’s door stuck: Inside the escape of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s family

Updated: Jul. 19, 2020 at 8:24 AM EDT
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(Charlotte Observer) - After their plane crashed and smoke billowed toward the passengers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his pilot couldn’t force an emergency door open, Earnhardt told federal investigators, according to newly released federal documents.

Soon they saw flames shooting from the bathroom.

The documents, released by the National Transportation Safety Board on its public database, describe what happened next aboard the Cessna 680 business jet after it crashed Aug. 15 at Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee.

Holding his toddler daughter, Isla Rose, Earnhardt asked co-pilot Jeff Melton to try the main cabin door.

It, too, was stuck. But with a second try, Melton kicked the door open wide enough to slip through. The opening was the size of a conventional oven, Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt handed his daughter out to Melton, then squeezed out of the plane moments before fire spread through the cabin.

Cheryl Campbell, a witness on the ground, said that after the crash, “immediately the rear of the aircraft burst into flames.”

Only three people in the plane were hurt, however, and with only minor injuries at that, according to the NTSB.

Earnhardt Jr. was among those treated for minor non-life-threatening injuries at a nearby hospital, the Observer reported at the time.

In an apparent reference to Earnhardt Jr., Campbell said she stayed by his side until paramedics arrived.

“He tried to get up and could not and was asking if his wife and child were out and OK,” Campbell said in a handwritten statement to the NTSB. Campbell had spent 25 years in the Air Force and the past 21 years as a flight attendant.

“I assured him I checked on his wife and his child and both were OK,” Campbell wrote.


Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, and their dog, Gus, were also aboard the plane, which departed with nine passengers and two crew members from Statesville Regional Airport.

JRM Air LLC, a subsidiary of Earnhardt’s Mooresville-based JR Motorsports team, owned the plane, federal records show.

The NTSB has not released a suspected cause of the crash, but a spokeswoman told media outlets Thursday that could happen soon.

Newly released cockpit recordings indicate the plane may have approached the lone runway at too fast a speed, with someone heard urging the pilot “to slow down.”

Pilot Richard Pope of Statesville told investigators “he was carrying extra speed on the approach because the airplane ‘slows down so easy.”’

Pope said their initial touchdown was “pretty hard” and the airplane “came back up” off the runway.

Melton, the co-pilot, concluded his interview with federal officials by saying “he had soul-searched the event many times since the accident and could not explain why the airspeed on final became high and the approach became unstable,” according to a memorandum by Ralph Hicks, a senior air safety investigator with the NTSB.

Investigators found no mechanical issues, according to the documents.

The documents include transcripts of interviews by NTSB investigators with those who were aboard the plane and with witnesses on the ground.

According to those interviews, the weather was fine as the pilot and co-pilot maneuvered around clouds and other planes and began looking for landmarks — “ridgelines” in pilot-speak — to help them find the airport. They’d flown there many times.

The initial touchdown was “pretty hard,” and the plane bounced back up, and then hit a second time.

The third touchdown occurred about halfway down the runway.

That’s when the crew reported they were both “on the brakes” and the airplane was skidding to the right. The right main landing gear appeared to have collapsed. The pilots again reported the plane skidding, “and it did not feel as if the airplane was decelerating at all.”

“Hold on,” the pilot and co-pilot yelled to the passengers as the plane veered into the grass and hit an airport fence.