Benjamin J. Stoppe, Jr. - For the Love of Flying

After a long career of flying, search and rescue, and other aviation-related activities, it seems only natural that Ben Stoppe should find his niche at Mitre's Center for Advanced Aviation Systems Development (CAASD), which primarily works for the FAA to improve the air traffic system. His experience as an officer in the Coast Guard, developing specifications for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) hurricane hunter jet aircraft, and testing software for the FBI’s fingerprint ID system all serve him well as the lab services manager at the Information Technology Resource Center.

Ben graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1972, with a B.S. in engineering physics. Although his first love was flying, sea-duty came first. After graduation, he was assigned to New London, Connecticut, where he served on a buoy tender before he was selected for Navy flight training. The Coast Guard had two aviator tracks to follow -- helicopter or fix-winged. Ben liked flying helicopters and his first duty tour was in Brooklyn, New York, where he flew Sikorsky H-52s and H-3s, becoming a helicopter aircraft commander of both. In some of his first experiences in search and rescue, Ben served as the air ambulance in upstate New York, landing in parking lots and at the end of dirt roads. Some of these rescues were extremely gratifying and involved medical evacuations to help stabilize premature babies.

Ben developed an increasing interest in the aviation engineering and aircraft maintenance. After spending two years at the University of Michigan to get his Master’s in a specially-designed program of electrical engineering and mathematics, he was assigned to the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. As a Branch Chief, he supervised the installation of a GPS-based navigation system in a helicopter, which was the first military installation of that type in the services.

His next stop was Cape Cod, Massachusetts at Otis Air National Guard Base, where he began his student training for Coast Guard aviation maintenance officer. He wound up being the assistant helicopter maintenance officer and later became the engineering officer at the air station, which was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the French built Falcon HU-25s and H3 helicopters. While stationed at Cape Cod, the Coast Guard decided to submit their first group of officers to NASA, and Ben was one of six astronaut candidates. When the selection went to his Academy classmate, he looked for other ways to continue to get off the ground.

Search and Rescue

Much of his flying in the Cape Cod area involved search and rescue missions, often at night and during storms. One mission about 150 miles east of Cape Cod involved rescuing six fisherman on a 90-foot fishing trawler that started taking on water during a storm. Ben discovered that the helicopter had a hydrolic leak problem, and had at one point aborted the mission. But the fisherman said his boat was sinking, so Ben ordered the helicopter back to the boat, where they rescued the 6 men from a life raft. Ben and his team were all awarded medals from the Coast Guard for this rescue.

New England fishermen back then would demonstrate their appreciation by filling a Coast Guard helicopter’s lowered rescue basket with lobsters and fish. After the Coast Guard started enforcing fishing laws and regulations, however, the baskets of lobsters were replaced by not so friendly gestures.

As the engineering officer again, Ben later did search and rescue work in Hawaii before retiring from the Coast Guard in 1994.

Ben Turns to Information Technology (IT)

Ben’s mind was still in the sky, however, and he began working for an Arlington-based company, User Technology Associates, on the acquisition of a Gulf Stream IV to serve as NOAA’s new hurricane hunter jet aircraft. NOAA already had two turbo props that could get up to 25,000 feet, but scientists wanted to get up even higher into the storm for better hurricane prediction. During this time, Ben also worked on developing a new GPS-based Dropwindsonde, which collected pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind data after it was ejected from the aircraft. Hundreds of the small missile-like instruments would be dropped around the eye of the storm to gather hurricane data.

The NOAA project was followed by assisting the FBI with a new fingerprint ID system in Clarksburg, West Virginia, while he was the government representative for software testing at Lockheed Martin in Florida. Ben was amazed that the FBI was still identifying fingerprints by having someone sit at a table with a magnifying glass, pull paper fingerprint cards from a file cabinet that had been categorized with similarities, and compare it to the print found at the crime scene. Ben assisted with the algorithms that search the database after a latent fingerprint from the crime scene had been scanned. By hand, it was taking 200-300 days or even longer to get routine results back. With the system now computerized, urgent criminal requests can take hours, instead of months.

The FBI work was interesting, however, something seemed to be missing for Ben. In 2000, he came to MITRE/CAASD and aviation again. “MITRE, especially CAASD, offers a unique work environment that match some of my varied past experiences,” says Ben. Is there anything Ben misses from his previous careers? Only the views -- words cannot describe the beauty and elation of returning from a successful mission and watching the sun rise behind Diamond Head crater in Hawaii.

Text and Photos courtesy of Regina Hansen, MITRE Corporation