NPS Regional Aviation Manager and Safety Manager killed in Alaska plane crash

The two men died May 27 in the accident near Whitehorse International Airport

(From the National Park Service, May 29, 2019)

The National Park Service (NPS) is mourning the loss of two of its Alaska-based employees following an airplane crash in Whitehorse, Canada on Monday evening.

The two men, Jeff Babcock and Charles Eric Benson, were on a personal trip to ferry a privately-owned airplane from the Lower 48 to Anchorage, Alaska, when the plane went down shortly after take-off from Whitehorse International Airport.

According to Canadian officials and witnesses the airplane crashed at about 5:30 p.m. Monday shortly after takeoff into a forested area south of the airport. A column of smoke was seen rising from the area and emergency personnel from Whitehorse Fire Department, the Whitehorse RCMP and airport firefighters responded immediately to the scene.

Jeff Babcock served as the NPS Alaska Region Aviation Manager and Charles Eric Benson was the NPS Alaska Region Safety Manager. “Jeff and Eric were two of our very best and the National Park Service and Alaska Region have suffered a terrible loss,” said Bert Frost, NPS Alaska Regional Director. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Jeff and Eric and we are heartbroken,” said Frost.

Both men were accomplished professionals, as well as skilled airmen. Prior to working for the National Park Service:

Jeff Babcock had a distinguished 23-year career as a Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain in the Alaska State Troopers where he served as a Commercial Pilot, Aircraft and Vessel Section Supervisor, Use of Force Instructor, Accident Reconstructionist, Undercover Investigator, Internal Investigator, Tactical Dive Master, Firearms Instructor, and Certified Flight Instructor. After retiring from the Alaska State Troopers, and before coming to work with the National Park Service, Jeff flew for 7 years as a pilot for K-2 Aviation. He enjoyed flying guests around Mt. Denali and sharing with them his favorite parts of Alaska.

Eric Benson served for 25 years in both the U.S. Air Force and in the U.S. Army in a variety of assignments. From 1993-1994 he attended and graduated from the Initial Entry Rotary Wing Qualification and the Aviation Officer Basic Courses at Fort Rucker Alabama. He then served as a UH-60 Army Aviator, Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer, Brigade Aviation Element, and an Aviation Maintenance Company Commander. Eric’s active duty career culminated in December of 2007, with the 10th Mountain Division while serving as a Battalion Executive Officer for the General Support Aviation Battalion at Fort Drum, New York. He joined the National Park Service after retiring from the U.S. Army.

Jeff Babcock and Eric Benson were long-time residents of Alaska and are well-known throughout the state. Services for Jeff Babcock will be held on Saturday, June 1, 2019 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Colony Chapel, 9475 East Silver Springs Circle, Palmer, Alaska at 11:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome to attend. Private services are pending for Eric Benson.

Jeff Babcock killed plane crash Alaska
Jeff Babcock. NPS photo.
Eric Benson killed plane crash Alaska
Eric Benson. Photo courtesy of the Benson family.

Kristin Swoboda accepts position in NPS Aviation Branch

Kristin Swoboda
Kristin Swoboda. NPS photo by Tina Boehle.

Kristin Swoboda has been named as the new fleet, pilot, and unmanned aircraft (UAS) specialist for the National Park Service. She will have oversight over the agency’s government owned and operated aircraft.

The last NPS person in the position was Jim Traub who retired in 2014. Christina Boehle, a spokesperson for the NPS, said that from 2014 to 2018 the duties were performed by a contractor.

The National Park Service Aviation Branch has been led by Chief Meg Gallagher since April of this year. Before that Ms. Gallagher was an Aviation Management Specialist responsible for the NPS’ helicopter operations. That position, a GS-12/13, is being advertised now.

Ms. Swoboda just transferred to the National Park Service after working for the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) in Boise, Idaho as their regional UAS manager. During her time with the bureau, she initiated their involvement with Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Kristin was instrumental in assisting the development of a department-level UAS policy for the Department of the Interior (DOI) and was part of the team of DOI subject matter experts who worked with NASA to evaluate and select potential new unmanned aircraft. She completed her formal education at the University of Idaho where she graduated with a degree in Forest Resources Ecosystems Management and a minor in Wildfire Management.

She began her federal career with the US Forest Service working in a variety of positions in wildland fire operations, prescribed fire, aviation, engine crews, as well as on an interagency hotshot crew.

In the past few years, her interest in unmanned aircraft carried over into the creation of a personal commercial UAS business focused mainly on precision agriculture applications. This has aided in increasing her breadth of knowledge in unmanned operations, camera/sensor deployment, and the creation of multiple types of data products.

Kristin also holds a private pilot’s license and owns a Beechcraft Sierra B24R low-wing monoplane. She has experience in flying various types of aircraft including an Atec Faeta, Piper Archer, Piper Warrior, Cirrus SR22, Columbia 400 and Cessna Taildraggers. Fostering her love of flying has accelerated her passion to expand her aviation knowledge, and to develop this enthusiasm in others.

Jim Traub National Park Service
Jim Traub (right) at AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI in 2009. He retired July 30, 2014.

NPS to hire branch chief for aviation

Above: National Park Service photo.

The National Park Service is expecting to hire a National Aviation Program Manager to fill the position vacated last month by the retirement of Jon Rollens. The GS-14 position provides leadership and direction for NPS aviation programs with specific emphasis on national aviation policy, standards and procedures.

There is only one “selective placement factor”. Applicants must have at least 90 days of wildland firefighting experience.

A pilot’s license is not required.

Skills the candidates should have include knowledge of:

  • Aircraft and associated support systems for resource management;
  • Wildland fire management, law enforcement, search and rescue, and related flying activities;
  • Evaluation and audit processes for aviation safety and risk management analysis.

Neither Mr. Rollens or his predecessor, Susie Bates, were pilots.

Before becoming NPS Branch Chief of Aviation in 2011, Mr. Rollens was the Regional Aviation Officer  for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Region for nine years. From 1997 through 2002 he was a National Aerial Attack Systems Specialist for the Forest Service, and before that, a Helicopter Operations Specialist for the USFS Intermountain Region.


Our opinion:

The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other federal land management agencies would benefit from having qualified pilots in their top regional and national aviation positions. We have been told that the USFS National Aviation Officer is not a pilot and only one of their Regional Aviation Officers is. A person in these jobs who does not know what they don’t know can be dangerous.

For a position that leads the entire aviation program, if it comes down to two applicants, one with 90 days as a wildland firefighter and another with a pilot’s license, the pilot should get the nod. Most of the complexity in these positions is on the aviation side, not the firefighting aspect. There is a great deal of fire expertise in the organizations that the Aviation Officers can tap into. A wealth of specific and detailed aviation knowledge from a pilots perspective is more rare.

Federal hiring procedures are ridiculously complex, but these agencies should figure out a way to be able to hire at the GS-13 and 14 level, a pilot with extensive program management skills, even if they don’t have firefighting experience.