Two off-duty Alaskan U.S. National Park Service employees were killed the evening of May 27 when the small plane they were flying in crashed shortly after taking off from the Whitehorse airport.
Charles Eric Benson, a 56-year-old from Palmer, and Jeffrey Brian Babcock, a 58-year-old from Wasilla, were found dead in the wreckage just south of the airport, the Yukon Coroner’s Service said in a press release May 28.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is investigating.
Benson and Babcock were both employees of the Alaska region of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), a spokesperson confirmed in an interview May 28 — Babcock, the regional aviation manager, and Benson, the safety manager.
“We’re mourning the loss of two of our finest employees and both these men are incredibly accomplished, skilled, not only aviators, but they were leaders in the areas of aviation safety and aviation management,” public affairs officer Peter Christian said.
“So, you can imagine this is a shock to all of us and we’re just incredibly sad.”
Babcock had joined the NPS around 2010 after spending 23 years as a commercial pilot with the Alaska State Troopers, Christian said, while Benson had joined in 2007 after spending 25 years in the U.S. military and as a helicopter pilot.
Both men were “well-respected, well looked-up to and they were the backbone of our aviation and our safety program in the state of Alaska,” he added.
According to the coroner’s press release, Benson and Babcock had bought the plane, a 1952 Cessna 170B, in Minnesota two days earlier, intending to fly it back to Palmer.
They had arrived in Whitehorse from Watson Lake at 4:10 p.m. on May 27 and had taken off again at 5:29 p.m. with a stated destination of Anchorage.
Moments later, the plane went down, crashing into a forested area about 600 metres away from the end of Runway 14.
The plane was registered to Benson, while Babcock is believed to have been piloting at the time of the crash.
A News reporter who was near the scene shortly after the crash saw a column of smoke rising from the trees, as well as a helicopter with a bucket circling the area before flying towards Schwatka Lake.
Meanwhile, Robert Service Campground attendant Jessica Harach told the News May 27 that she had been walking around the nearby campground around 5:30 p.m. when she heard something unusual.
“I heard a plane coming in and it stopped very suddenly, not like, when planes are landing and they sort of wind down,” she said. “It was a very sudden stop … It was just the loud plane, and then nothing.”
Harach said she didn’t see what happened, but soon saw a helicopter in the sky and heard emergency vehicles speeding by.
The TSB sent two investigators to Whitehorse the morning of May 28.
Investigator-in-charge Gerrit Vermeer told the News that they will be in town until May 31 collecting evidence and, at this point, it’s too early to say what could have caused the crash.
“Generally, when we go to a crash site, there’s the environment, the machine and the people who were flying the machine that we look into,” he said. “Those are the three areas that we’ll be looking at.”
With files from John Hopkins-Hill
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org