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Suicide Suspected

Pilot charged with second DUI night before fatal flight

Law enforcement officials in Rapid City, S.D., suspect suicide in the Monday plane crash and death of a 22-year-old UND flight instructor. Robert Thomsen of Wild Rose, Wisconsin, died in the crash Monday evening at Rapid City Regional Airport one day after being charged with his second drunken driving offense in two and a half years. Thomsen was employed by UND as a flight instructor, and was flying a UND-owned twin-engine Piper Seminole, which crashed at 7:32 p.m. Suicide is suspected because of Thomsen's last radio message to the Rapid City airport control tower, said Rapid City Police Department spokesman, Capt. Christopher Grant. His father Paul said  his son's message to the Rapid City tower, was "Tell everyone I love them."  

The school knew of Thomsen's first offense, in May 1998, but Bruce Smith, dean of UND's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences said it didn't violate any of its policies in employing Thomsen, who is also a graduate of the UND school. Thomsen was hired in August 1998. Smith said the school didn't violate any law in Thomsen's employment. Smith said Wednesday "we were not aware of the Sunday morning charge." Smith said the school follows the Federal Aviation Administration's requirements with its pilots and like many other aviation employers subjects pilots, to random drug tests. Thomsen's pilot certification was suspended by the FAA for his 1998 offense, but he passed the needed steps to regain his credentials, Smith said. The steps included alcohol evaluations. After completing FAA steps and regaining his certification, Thomsen was hired as a flight instructor.

Smith and other UND aerospace officials declined to release Thomsen's personnel file, considered public under North Dakota law. The dean said, however, there's nothing in the file that would indicate a problem. He called Thomsen an exemplary pilot and student. Thomsen graduated on top of his class in December 1999 with a 3.84 grade-point average. Smith said, UND isn't declaring the accident a suicide. He said he wouldn't know the cause of the accident until the NTSB completes its investigation.

DUIs are often career-enders  "It depends on the hiring practices of  businesses," said John Vold, an operations inspector with the FAA's Fargo office.  If a pilot has one offense, aviation companies typically won't hire that pilot.  Airlines "absolutely" won't hire a pilot with two offenses.

According to Grand Forks police, Thomsen was found sitting in a parked car with its engine running, in a gas station lot in the 600 block of South Washington Street  about 3 a.m. Sunday. Police said Thomsen was alone in the car, hunched over behind the steering wheel. Police said Thomsen failed every sobriety test administered to him Sunday morning. The results of a Breathalyzer test showed his blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit, at .194 percent. Thomsen was arrested and jailed briefly Sunday morning at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. He was bailed out later that day, according to a correctional officer.

Thomsen received his first DUI in 1998 while he was still an aviation student at UND, according to court documents. According to court records he was fined $300 and ordered to meet with an addiction counselor at UND student health. He was also sentenced to a year of supervised probation and ordered to take part in a 12-hour DUI offender's seminar. Thomsen's probation was completed in May 1999; he had no driving or alcohol violations since his 1998 DUI conviction, until he was arrested again Sunday.

Grand Forks Herald, Thursday, October 5, 2000