The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report Tuesday on a fatal crash just outside of Nome on March 5.
The crash claimed the life of the pilot, 28-year-old Thomas Grainger, who was from Wasilla. His Cessna 172K plane was located nose-down in the area of Hastings Creek, east of Nome, the morning after he was due to land at Nome City Field. The conditions of the flight, plane and pilot that may have led to the crash, according to a report from NTSB investigator Noreen Price.
In her report, Price did not list a cause of death. Nothing indicated that a fire or explosion occurred at the time of the crash, which caused “substantial” damage to the plane, Price noted.
Key aspects of Price’s investigation included the weather at the time of his attempted landing in Nome and the amount of fuel his plane had, she said in an interview. In her report, she noted that the weather was clear at an altitude he would have flown at most of the way from Wasilla to Nome, but clouds created a ceiling at 400 feet, leading to what she described as an “instrument meteorological condition.” That means flight instruments were necessary to travel through that kind of weather, versus a pilot’s view from the cockpit.
Additionally, Grainger arrived in the Nome area well after sunset. According to Federal Aviation Administration pilot records, Grainger was not allowed to fly at night, and could only operate his plane under visual flight rules, meaning he had to be able to see where he was going. Price noted in her report that the Nome City Field Airport is not lit or plowed, but is located one mile east of the Nome Airport, which is lit and plowed.
Based on interviews with Grainger’s fiancé, a friend and witnesses, Price pieced together a timeline for his flight: Grainger took off from Wasilla at 5:10 p.m., shortly after his fiancé saw him fueling his plane. At about 9:41 p.m., a friend in Nome began texting with Grainger as he attempted to land with some difficulty, and at 10:14 p.m., he texted “not happening” and left the area, Price wrote.
Around that time, a witness who lives near the airport “saw the airplane making multiple approaches and depart to the east. He also heard a transmission on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) of 123.6 MHz that sounded like ‘no, no, no’ sometime after the airplane departed the area,” Price added. The witness said they listened for an emergency locator transmitter signal, but never heard one.
The next morning around 5:30 a.m., Grainger’s fiancé reported him overdue to Alaska State Troopers, a dispatch stated. The FAA issued an alert noticed at 6:06 a.m., and then at 9:59 a.m., a Nome search and rescue crew located the plane 10 miles east of Nome on sea ice.
GPS data was recovered from the plane and showed that Grainger made no stops between Wasilla and Nome, a flight Price described in an interview as long for a small plane, totaling more than 500 miles. Fuel company records indicate he purchased 35.3 gallons of fuel, which his fiancé explained was used to fill the plane and two fuel containers. According to Price, the plane he was flying could carry up to 52 gallons of fuel.
“The actual fuel quantity for this flight is unknown,” she wrote.
The GPS data also confirmed Grainger made four attempts to land before heading east. Its last recorded data point was at 10:23 p.m., indicating the plane was moving a 42 mph at an altitude of 373 feet near the crash site.
According to Grainger’s fiancé, he had flown the route often, “maybe 20 times before, but usually in summer,” Price wrote.