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FAA records show pilot killed in Nome-area crash was not permitted to fly at night

By Eric Ruble Photojournalist: Beth Peak - 7:00 PM March 7, 2017

The Alaska pilot killed when his plane crashed about 10 miles east of Nome should not have been flying at the time, according to records from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Thomas Grainger’s last communication was at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, according to Alaska State Troopers. Grainger, 28, has been a licensed private pilot since 2006, according to the FAA airman database. However, he had a medical restriction that said his license was “not valid for night flying or by color signal control.”

Rick Ruess, the co-owner of Arctic Flyers flight school, said that means Grainger was most likely colorblind.

“You can’t see that shades like red and green and white, and that’s usually what you get from a light gun signal,” said Ruess, who has more than 30,000 hours of flying experience.

He said landing in Nome at night in poor weather conditions is challenging for pilots, regardless of whether they have a restriction on their license. He said without being able to see city lights, it is easy to become disoriented.

“It’s kind of tough to tell where you are in space,” Ruess explained. “It’s called vertigo, and that can lead to – it has led to a lot of deaths in the past.”

The scene of the plane crash near Nome. Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. Noreen Price spoke to KTVA from Nome Tuesday. She said Grainger was flying with visual flight rules, or VFR. However, she said the weather conditions in Nome were below any minimum requirement for VFR.

“The ceilings were as low as 400 feet,” said Price, who added that visibility was approximately a half a mile.

She said as in any investigation, the NTSB will look at “the man, the machine and the environment,” and that it could be more than one year before a cause is ultimately determined. Price said a factor that may have contributed to the crash is a potential lack of fuel.

“We are taking very close look at the weather as a factor in this accident and a very close look at the fuel planning for this particular flight, because it was such a long flight and he wasn’t able to land at his destination,” she explained.

The FAA said he did not file a flight plan, but troopers reported that Grainger was flying from Wasilla to Nome, which Price emphasized was a long flight for a Cessna 172.

Grainger grew up in central California and attended Sacramento State University. His father, Joe Grainger, said Thomas Grainger moved to Alaska immediately after college. He lived in Anchorage before moving to Wasilla and finally to Palmer.

“He always dreamed about going to Alaska,” his father said.

Thomas Grainger worked in the road construction and traffic control industry, but was also heavily involved in Fur Rendezvous. Joe Grainger said his son enjoyed spending his time volunteering.

“He touched a lot of lives,” Joe Grainger said.

Thomas Grainger proposed to his girlfriend at the Fur Rondy parade on Feb. 25. He and his fiancé were planning to marry in December.

“We went from a stream of happy emotions to the most tragic call a parent can have,” Joe Grainger said.

He said Thomas Grainger was planning to visit friends in Nome and had made the flight several times.

KTVA 11’s Eric Ruble can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter

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