By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Two top safety officials for the U.S. National Park Service in Alaska were killed in the Memorial Day crash of a single-engine airplane in Canada’s Yukon territory, officials said on Tuesday.
Jeff Babcock, head of aviation safety for the Park Service in Alaska, and Eric Benson, the agency’s Alaska safety officer, died when their Cessna 170B crashed shortly after takeoff from Whitehorse, the Yukon capital and largest city in the western Canadian territory, officials said.
“They were really the backbone of our aviation safety programme,” said Peter Christian, a Park Service spokesman in Alaska. “This is a tragic loss for us. Not only were they our colleagues, they were also our friends.”
The crash occurred at about 5:30 p.m. on Monday and the victims were identified on Tuesday by Heather Jones, chief coroner for the Yukon government. The two men were on a personal trip and not on Park Service business, Christian said.
The plane was registered to Benson and was being taken from Minnesota to Alaska, said a statement released by Jones.
Babcock was believed to have been piloting the plane when it came down about 600 meters off the end of the runway in a forested area, the statement said.
The crash was under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the Yukon Coroner’s Service, with assistance from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the statement said.
Babcock, 58, oversaw about 15 pilots and a fleet of some 20 aircraft in Alaska, where the Park Service administers “millions and millions of acres of roadless parkland,” Christian said.
Benson, 56, oversaw the Park Service’s Alaska occupational health and safety programme, he said.
The crash in Yukon followed a spate of three general aviation accidents in Alaska during the past few weeks that killed a total of nine people, six of them in the midair collision of two sightseeing planes near Ketchikan.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in ANCHORAGE; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Tait)