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Flying with the Angels

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Even at an early age, both Andrew Talbott and Lance Benson showed a fascination with flight.

“My interest to fly was sparked when I was 4 years old and my parents took me to visit the Kennedy Space Center and I immediately was sold,” Talbott said.

“I also grew up hearing my grandfather — who was a World War II veteran — tell me stories about World War II. So as I grew up, I put two and two together and wanted to join the military and fly.”

Benson, the son of McPherson residents Richard and Linda Benson, “has always wanted to be in the air,” Linda Benson said.

“He has known he would be a pilot since the age of 3 or 4,” she said. “In kindergarten, he always drew pictures of a jet or plane and said ‘When I grow up, I am going to be an Air Force pilot.’ All of his toys were planes.”

The men have more in common than a love of flight.

Both are 32 and from small towns in Kansas, Benson from McPherson and Talbott from Sedan, in southeast Kansas.

Both are graduates of Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Salina.

Both are lieutenants with the U.S. Navy.

And both are pilots with the Blue Angels, the Navy’s well-known flight demonstration squadron, made up of pilots from the Navy and the Marines.
Most challenging time

Talbott graduated from Kansas State Polytechnic in December 2005 with a bachelor’s in airway science. He also served two years as a flight instructor.

His time at the Salina college was the most challenging time of his life, but “not from studying or struggling to make good grades, but from a financial standpoint.”

“I was supporting myself with two jobs and was surviving off private student loans,” he said. “With that said, it made me realize how important it was to attend class and utilize all the tools the school had to offer.”

Benson graduated from McPherson High School in 2002 and in May 2006 earned a bachelor’s in airway science and a minor in business from Kansas State Polytechnic. The Journal was unable to speak with him for this story.
Two on the Blue Angels

Having two members of the Blue Angels from Kansas State Polytechnic says a lot about the aviation department, said Troy Brockway, associate professor of the professional pilot program.

“It’s almost unheard of to have students come from a nonmilitary school or program such as ours and make the Blue Angels, let alone two,” Brockway said.

“They’re usually coming from some sort of military school or background,” he said. “It’s a testament to their desire, skills and willingness to take on new challenges. They were much of the same while here on campus.”

After graduating, Talbott, in January 2006, reported to Pensacola for Officer Candidate School and was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

Since then, he’s undergone training and worked in such places as Enid, Okla., Meridian, Miss., Oceana, Va. He’s also completed two deployments aboard the USS Enterprise carrier and flew in support of operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom.

Talbott, who joined the Blue Angels in 2014, has accumulated more than 2,300 flight hours and has 335 carrier-assisted landings to his credit.

Talbott said his favorite aircraft to fly is the F/A-18 because it’s “by far the coolest aircraft I have flown,” he said. “The maneuverability, power, takeoff and landing capabilities are amazing.”
A Polytechnic instructor

While attending Kansas State Polytechnic, Benson served as a flight instructor for three years, before reporting to the Pensacola, Fla., for Officer Candidate School, where he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

He also served and trained in Enid and Meridian, Miss., Oceana, and Lemoore, Calif. He’s completed two deployments aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson and flew in support of New Dawn and Enduring Freedom. He joined the Blue Angels in September 2015, but he won’t begin flying until after his initial training in March.

“It was great going to Hawaii and then San Diego on the Carl Vinson and even better getting the opportunity to see our son fly,” Linda Benson said. “This is what he loves to do, and whenever we can support that, it means as much to us as it does to him.”

Richard Benson called his son a “go-getter” who “sets big goals for himself and then goes out and makes them happen.”

“The best thing is that he’s an amazing pilot and very humble,” Richard Benson said. “That’s what I really appreciate about him. How he remains so down to earth.”
Teamwork and trust

The Blue Angels generally is made up of 16 officers. Officers one through seven are the pilots, and seven through 16 are the support officers. The team is typically on the road “300 days out of the year for a standard show season and our winter training season, combined,” Talbott said.

Since 1946, the Blue Angels have performed their demonstrations in front of more than 500 million fans. The 2016 Blue Angels show schedule kicks off on March 12, at the Naval Air Facility El Centro Annual Air Show, in El Centro, Calif., and ends Nov. 12, at the Blue Angels Homecoming Show, in Pensacola, Fla.

“The key to our success is teamwork and trust,” Talbott said. “Everyone has a job to do and we rely on each other to do it or else we wouldn’t be able to make the show happen.”
A very hectic schedule

The schedule can get hectic.

The group is commonly off on Mondays and bracing themselves for “a busy Thursday, which is our transit and practice days at the show site,” Talbott said.

“I have a responsibility to do our flight planning to all of our show sites,” he said. “Generally, I will have to work on the flight planning a few days ahead of time before we leave for the upcoming show site.”

Talbott said the team typically meets at its home base in Pensacola at 6:30 a.m.

“We always arrive at 10 a.m. at the show site,” he said. “Once we land at our destination, three of us will do media interviews with the local news.”

Up next is practice and debriefing.

“The first practice flight at the show site will consist of what we call circles. This means we will fly around and pick out all of our visual check points,” Talbott said. “Once we feel comfortable with our check points, we will then fly a ‘flat’ version of our show. We then will land and debrief the flight.”

After a full practice, the group gets together, debriefs, looks ar video and picks apart the practice session mistakes. It’s usually after 6:30 before the group calls it day.
The work is worth it

Despite facing a tough schedule, Tallbott said it’s worth it when he’s “talking with high schools, grade schools, children hospitals and youth along the crowd line after a show.”

“We want to motivate the youth to do something with their lives, whether it is an electrician, doctor, lawyer, it doesn’t matter, as long as they do something,” he said. “If I am able to motivate or create a spark of interest in one person during my tour here, it will be worth it.”

Tallbott’s tour with the Blue Angels will end in the spring of 2017. Officers typically serve two years with the team before reporting back to their tours of duty.
KSU paving the way

During the 2015 fall semester at Kansas State Polytechnic, 325 students were enrolled in the aviation department, with 166 of those students in the professional pilot program. Being a part of the aviation and professional pilot programs takes a strong work ethic.

“Our program here is very rigorous and we expect a lot out of our students,’ Brockway said. “They are expected to know their stuff and not just do enough to get by. We really push them to go above and beyond what they’re expected.”

That didn’t deter Talbott, who visited the program as a senior in high school.

“As I took classes, I knew that I made the right choice because my professors were very approachable, and professional, and being in the program really improved my work ethic.”
That K-State education

Linda Benson said that while her son was stationed at Enid and Virginia Beach, he realized how far his education had brought him.

“He would always tell us about how many people from Kansas State were with him and doing so well,” Linda said. “It says a lot about the program they have there and the amount of work the students put in while they’re there.”

Talbott said that Bill Gross, chief pilot/professor of the professional pilot program, and Brockway were instrumental in Talbott’s journey.

“At KSU, they do it right,” Talbott said. “Bill Gross and Troy Brockway are two individuals I will never forget. They helped me to get where I am today.”

Brockway was impressed with Benson and Talbott, from day one.

“Both of those men are good individuals, hard-working and just talk about the right stuff,” he said. “They became instructors for our program here. In order to do that they had to maintain a good attitude, work ethic and show the signs of being a good employee.”

Pilot Lt. Andy Talbott, U.S. Navy, is from Sedan. He graduated from Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Salina, in December 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in airway science.
Left Wing Pilot, Lt. Andy Talbott, Blue Angels U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, flies over Shadetree Range, Calif., during a training sortie Jan. 14, 2015. The Blue Angels were conducting winter training where pilots must complete 120 practice flights before kicking off the 2015 air show season.

FLYING A BLUE STREAK

“I was supporting myself with two jobs and was surviving off private student loans. With that said, it made me realize how important it was to attend class and utilize all the tools the school had to offer.” • PILOT LT. ANDY TALBOTT

“The best thing is that he’s an amazing pilot and very humble. That’s what I really appreciate about him. How he remains so down to earth.” • RICHARD BENSON, of McPherson, talking about his son, Pilot Lt. Lance Benson

GREAT EXPECTATIONS “Our program here is very rigorous, and we expect a lot out of our students. They are expected to know their stuff and not just do enough to get by. We really push them to go above and beyond what they’re expected.” • TROY BROCKWAY, associate professor of the professional pilot program, Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Salina

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