This story has been updated
A highly experienced Alaska small-plane pilot and former Alaska State Trooper now working for the Alaska Region of the National Park Service died Monday along with the federal agency’s safety officer after the single-engine airplane they were ferrying from Minnesota back to the 49th state crashed in the Yukon Territory, Canada.
Dead are 58-year-old Jeffrey Brian Babcock of Wasilla and 56-year-old Charles Eric Benson of Palmer, according to Yukon Chief Coroner Heather Jones.
Babcock was the regional aviation manager for the federal agency. He joined the Park Service in 2015 after a career with the Troopers and with a lot of experience as a Bush pilot.
Benson was the regional safety manager for the federal agency.
It is not known who was at the controls of the Cessna 170 when it crashed into the woods about 1,800 feet off the end of the runway in Whitehorse shortly after takeoff and burst into flames.
.“Jeff and Eric were two of our very best and the National Park Service and Alaska Region have suffered a terrible loss,” Bert Frost, the Alaska regional director, said in a statement released late Tuesday. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Jeff and Eric and we are heartbroken
A high-time pilot, Babcock spent seven years flying Mount Denali sightseeing tours out of Talkeetna for K2 Aviation after his retirement from the troopers. The Toronto Star in 2010 featured him in a story about flightseeing Denali National Park.
Writer Pat Brennan described Babcock as “a friend” of Alaska’s most famous “governor and flew her and the film crew for ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’ to the glacier. He lives next door to her father in Wasilla.”
Babcock spent 23 years with the state primarily as a wildlife trooper. It was a job that required a lot of flying on patrol in single-engine airplanes.
In the book “Tales of the Alaska State Troopers: Stories of Courage, Survival, and Honor,” author Peter B. Mathiesen recounted how Babcock once saved a man adrift in a Zodiac inflatable boat by providing him an airplane tow.
Babcock offered a rescue, but the man refused to abandon the boat he’d borrowed in Valdez. Watching an outgoing tide push the boat toward Hinchinbrook Entrance on its way out into the wide open Gulf of Alaska, Babcock decided he couldn’t just leave the boater.
“Babock ran several rescue scenarios in his head before a viable option surfaced,” Mathiesen wrote; then the trooper offered a rope tow. The man in the boat wanted to know if that was Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) legal.
Babcock confessed probably not, but told the man it was either take the tow, abandon the Zodiac or get washed out to sea. The man opted for the tow and Babcock spent two hours on the water dodging icebergs to tow the man safely to the island, Mathiesen recounted.
Park Service colleagues described both Babcock and Benson as highly safety conscious fliers. Retired Alaska Region spokesman John Quinley messaged that “Benson was…about as thorough and careful a guy as one could imagine.”
The crashed plane was registered in Benson’s name.
Benson served 25 years the U.S. Air Force and in the U.S. Army before retiring and going to work for the park service. A Huey helicopter pilot, he ended his active duty military career as the executive officer for the General Support Aviation Battalion for the fabled 10th Mountain Division.
The CBC reported he and Babcock picked the 1952-vintage aircraft up in Minnesota on May 25 and were headed for Anchorage. The men stopped in Watson Lake, British Columbia, Canada, and then in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to refuel.
They were reportedly on the ground for less than 90 minutes before taking off from Whitehorse and crashing. The weather in Whitehorse at the time was good; the temperature in the 70s with passing clouds and breeze.
The Yukon News, a local Whitehorse newspaper, reported that an employee of the Robert Service Campground near the airport said she had been walking around the area around 5:30 p.m. on Monday when she heard an airplane’s engine stop.
“I heard a plane coming in and it stopped very suddenly, not like, when planes are landing and they sort of wind down,” Jessica Harach told the newspaper. “It was a very sudden stop … It was just the loud plane, and then nothing.”
Shortly thereafter she heard emergency vehicles racing to the scene.
Officials with Canada’s Transporation Safety Board and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were on the scene and investigating Tuesday.
The park service said a memorial service for Babcock is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Colony Chapel, 9475 East Silver Springs Circle in Palmer.
Correction: This story was corrected on May 29, 2019 to get the temperature right in Whitehorse at the time of the crash.