Colorado hero flies with Thunderbirds

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
A math teacher who subdued an active shooter at Deer Creek Middle School Feb. 23 flew in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon over the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base and Colorado Springs May 23.

Dr. David Benke's act of heroism and 33 years of service to his community as a math teacher in public schools were showcased by the Thunderbirds U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.

His service to the community as a teacher is enough to warrant a hometown hero incentive flight, said Lt. Col. Derek Routt, Thunderbirds operations officer and No. 7 pilot, but the Feb. 23 incident was what brought the San Antonio native to the Air Force's attention.

"A gunman came in and started shooting. And what did David do? Well, he took him out," Colonel Routt said. "So, sir, thank you for your service to the community, and thank you for what you did for your students, and I'm sure they thank you as well."

Deer Creek Middle School is in Jefferson County, Colo., the same county where the Columbine High School shootings took place 11 years ago. After the Columbine incident and a shooting at Platte Canyon High School in neighboring Park County, the Jefferson County School District began training its faculty how to respond to active shooter incidents, Dr. Benke said.

"We had done some drills, and during those drills, I'd always promised the kids that I would try and do something," he said. "When I saw the guy shooting, at first I thought it wasn't real. Then I tried to remember my promise."

The gunman, using a bolt-action rifle, fired two shots, injuring two students, Matt Thieu and Reagan Weber. Dr. Benke tackled the attacker as he prepared to chamber a round for a third shot.

"I went for him, and he dropped the gun because he knew he couldn't rechamber it," Dr. Benke said. "I basically wrestled him to the ground, and then my vice principal, Vicky Brown, came out and secured the gun." Another math teacher, Norm Hanne, helped subdue the attacker, and others provided zipties to keep the gunman secured until sheriffs arrived.

"That's awesome," Colonel Routt said on hearing Dr. Benke's story. "That is ... wow. That's exactly what I hope anybody could do, would do."

Dr. Benke, who holds a doctorate in educational technology from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, said he is trying to recruit others to become "domino pushers."

"A lot of times in a situation like that, people are just ... standing around like dominoes," he said. "If we can make people aware that the first person to act precipitates a bunch of other people acting, that'd be really useful."

Most of the Thunderbirds pilots arrived at Peterson Air Force Base at 1 p.m. The squadron stays in Colorado Springs three or four days each year for the Air Force Academy's graduation activities. Dr. Benke arrived at Peterson Air Force Base an hour later, accompanied by his wife, Sandra, and their three children: Marissa, age 13, and Alec and Amanda, age 8.

Mrs. Benke said she first heard about the incident at Deer Creek from her husband as school was letting out.

"He called me right around 3:30 that afternoon and said, 'I'm okay ... there's been a shooting at my school, and I had to tackle the gunman, but not before he shot one of my students,'" said Mrs. Benke, who met her husband in a Japanese class in college. Shortly thereafter, their phone line "went crazy" with phone calls from concerned family members and friends and from the local media who wanted to know more about the Hero of Deer Creek.

Mrs. Benke said she was not surprised that her husband had subdued the shooter.

"My husband is a gentle, guy, but he's cut out of a different cloth than a lot of people these days," she said. "He always does the right thing. He's very quick to help people out. Plus, he's a middle school teacher with a PhD -- there's a lot he could do with that, but being a schoolteacher is how he chose to give back."

After Dr. Benke and his family arrived, a flight surgeon cleared him to fly, and Tech. Sgt. Robbin Bailon fitted him into his pressurized flight suit and briefed him on aircrew flight equipment he would need in the event of an emergency. Colonel Routt talked with him about the flight plan and the maneuvers they would experience during the flight.

At 5:23 p.m., Colonel Routt and Dr. Benke took off from Runway 17/35L and quickly climbed to 15,000 feet. They returned to Peterson AFB about 45 minutes later. After the flight, the No. 7 pilot outlined some of the incentive ride's highlights.

"We went straight up ... rolled on our backs looking at the Colorado countryside, rolled out and went to the local military operating area," Colonel Routt said. "Our MOA was just south of here in those mountains. It was the most beautiful countryside I've seen in a long time. Pikes Peak was just to the north, and you could reach out and touch it."

The colonel saluted Dr. Benke for his service to the community. The doctor, in turn, thanked the men and women of the Thunderbirds for their service to the United States.

"In March, a 7-year-old boy called 911 on the telephone, and he said, 'Could you send police and soldiers, and a lot of them?' because some people had broken into his house," Dr. Benke said. "You'll notice he didn't ask for math teachers -- he asked for guys like you. In about three seconds, I strained to barely touch the bar that you guys touch every day -- that you guys set for America. Thank you."