Photos courtesy of Jeff Benson
Throughout his career of becoming and working as a helicopter pilot, Jeff Benson has gone from serving his country to serving his local community, both from the sky and on the ground.
When Jeff Benson joined the Navy at age 18, he enlisted for six years. He joined for an adventure, but those six years turned into 24, and an adventure turned into a career as a helicopter pilot.
“I just kind of set my goals early to do whatever it takes to get my education and become a pilot,” Benson said.
Many people don’t realize that the Navy has almost as many pilots as the Air Force, Benson said. The Navy requires that anyone who wants to become a helicopter pilot receive a four-year college degree first. Benson attended Auburn in Alabama and got a degree in electrical engineering. He then put in 100 hours on a T-34 Mentor, a type of plane. Benson described the Mentor as a two seat, turboprop, fully aerobatic plane. After 100 hours, he had to make a choice: jets, props, or helicopters.
“I just had an affinity for helicopters,” Benson said. “Flying helicopters is a lot of fun. You can land pretty much anywhere.”
Benson worked for 10 years to make his dream of becoming a helicopter pilot a reality. Soon he became the kind of pilot to land a helicopter on the back of a Navy frigate as it pitched and rolled in 20-foot swells on the Persian Gulf. Once he got his wings, Benson was put on multipurpose missions, like search and rescue, as well as carrying hellfire missiles and 50-caliber machine guns.
Benson became the officer in charge of a Navy detachment of six pilots, three rescue swimmers and 20 enlisted soldiers who maintained two helicopters. In the Persian Gulf, they helped protect the waterways for free commerce and keep shipping lanes open.
Benson’s Navy career also had him searching for submarines in the open ocean, transporting food and supplies from one Navy ship to another, and delivering medical supplies to areas of Africa, among other things. In Malta he participated in the Malta International Airshow.
After his 24 years in the Navy, Benson retired and returned to the Lakes Area, his home stomping grounds, to raise his family with his wife, Julie. Today he lives in Pequot Lakes with his wife and two kids and flies an emergency helicopter for North Memorial Ambulance, where the adventure continues.
Benson flies one of six helicopters that cover the whole state, reaching out to Duluth, International Falls, and Fargo. He finds that his work at North Memorial is similar, in some ways, to his work in the Navy. In the Navy he did search and rescue and patient transfers, which bear a resemblance to the flight for life work he does today. He found that work for North Memorial is more challenging in some ways than flying for the Navy. For example, two pilots man a Navy helicopter, but only on pilot is onboard a North Memorial helicopter. Alongside Benson in the copter is a paramedic and a nurse.
It’s Benson’s responsibility to make the decision to take a call or not based on the safety of a flight. The decision is almost always based on weather, he said.
“The most challenging part is making the go/no go decisions based on weather,” he said. North Memorial follows specific criteria for the weather, including current conditions and what’s forecast, to make informed decisions. “It’s black and white, can we do it safely or not.”
And even though the criteria is clear, “that’s a bit of a challenge,” Benson said. When asked to take a call, helicopter pilots aren’t given specific information on the situation they’ll be handling.
But while there are challenging aspects to his job, there’s also reward. Benson said his favorite part of the job is getting to help people out and save lives.
Side perks include the awesome perspective of seeing the state from the sky. Averaging two flights per shift, Benson has seen northern lights, city skylines, lakes and forests and more from windows of a helicopter.
For instance, Benson watched the progress of US Bank Stadium from above and from the rooftop of nearby hospitals. He watched as the Metrodome was taken apart, then saw an almost step-by-step progression of the new stadium from the sky.
Benson works 12 hours shifts, six days in a row, and then has six days off. His work schedule, and a passion for the community, has allowed Benson to become heavily involved in volunteer work. He’s the Scoutmaster for his son’s Boy Scout Troop 102, and also helped start the Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program in Pequot Lakes Schools. He’s also a member of the Sibley Lake Board.
After 24 years of serving his country in the Navy, Benson’s continuing the theme here in the Lakes Area. Both in his career as a pilot, transporting patients to save lives, and in his free time as Scoutmaster and Watch DOG, Benson is one who serves.