Humble hero

Having trained hundreds of pilots, the late Bill Gross, and his wife Elaine, have made a lasting impact on K-State Polytechnic’s aviation program.

Published April 23, 2020

I was approached at the hotel continental breakfast counter by a man in a pilot’s uniform. “I see from your shirt that you’re a K-State fan,” he said. I told him I was a fan, alumna and worked at the KSU Foundation. “I’m a graduate of K-State’s aviation program,” he said. He went on to tell me how he received the best training there, better than many of his colleagues, and that one professor in particular, Bill Gross, was responsible. His pride for K-State and the training and career preparation he received at K-State Polytechnic was palpable.

I’ve heard many stories like these, and they all have one thing, one person, in common — Bill Gross. Bill, who passed in 2021, was Kansas State University’s chief flight instructor and aviation professor. All pilots who flew through K-State’s aviation program from 1987 to 2020 have trained and flown with Bill. In fact, probably all pilots in the region and many across the nation have flown with Bill because he was one of just a few dedicated pilot examiners approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Seeing Bill walk the halls at K-State Polytechnic was like seeing Michael Jordan. He had this aura around him that just made you want to study harder, ask more questions, and do the very best you could,” said Jack Thomlison, 2021 graduate in aeronautical technology. “Bill was our in-house flight examiner who would conduct the final test for pilots before they got certified; this is called a checkride. This is a moment in pilots’ lives where we tend to be the most nervous, due to it being a make or break moment. All the cards are on the table. From the second you walked into the examining room (Bill’s office), you felt at ease. You knew right away that he wasn’t looking to fail you, but instead there to give you every chance to succeed.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of pilots have flown with or been certified by Bill. Lt. Andy Talbott, 2005 graduate and a pilot for the Navy’s Blue Angels, is one who considers himself lucky to have trained with him. “Bill’s voice has constantly echoed in my head throughout my career” Talbott said. “From graduating at the top of my class in all phases of U.S. Navy flight school, my first aircraft carrier landing, my first combat flight while deployed, to being selected as a U.S. Navy Blue Angel pilot, I consistently would hear Bill’s voice in my head stating, ‘know every inch of your aircraft!’, ‘know your procedures cold,’  ‘always consider yourself lucky not experiencing an emergency inflight.’ This set a foundation for me whether I was mission planning for a 9-10 hour combat flight or executing a demonstration flight while on the U.S. Navy Blue Angels; a foundation of attention to detail and preparation that was often different than most.”

While Bill’s praises are sung by pilots all over the country, you would never have heard him brag. “Bill was one of the most humble people I’ve known,” said Alysia Starkey, CEO and dean of Kansas State University Salina campus. “He’s had a national impact on aviation, but you would have never known it based upon his gentle nature and the way he carried himself. His leadership was one of quiet expectation; you wanted to be excellent just by being in his presence.”

“I took my first checkride with Bill in 1985,” said Troy Brockway, aviation professor. “I was in awe of his knowledge and experience.  It is rewarding that I had the opportunity to work with one of my mentors in aviation. He knew everyone in aviation, and everyone knew and respected him. He joked that he gave Orville and Wilbur Wright their checkrides.” 

In 1987, Bill started the aviation training program at K-State Polytechnic, which was the Kansas Technical Institute at the time. Bill shaped the program, training pilots and helping them get their starts professionally. “Bill Gross set the standards for a quality aviation education,” Brockway said. “He was in aviation for so long that he had many contacts who would aid young people as they started their career. It was enjoyable to work with him and by trying to emulate him, you become a better pilot.” 

Bill took an interest in his students outside of the cockpit, too. “One of my favorite memories of Bill is the several times we went to the K-State football games together,” Thomlison said. “I was able to see another side of him. He would constantly offer his students the opportunity to join him at Snyder stadium if he had an extra ticket. There was no aviation talk on these trips either (unless you wanted to talk about it); it was all about your family, schoolwork (non-aviation), fun trips you’ve been on, etc. It was like I was catching up with an old friend.”

Besides training and mentoring his students, Bill and his wife, Elaine, financially support aviation students through three scholarships they’ve created. They also made a gift to support the general excellence of the aviation program. “Their latest gift will help to ensure that quality leadership can be provided for the program moving forward, as well as support for students and their needs to get through the flight training experience,” Starkey said.

While Bill’s impact on aviation is felt across the region and the nation, it’s his influence at K-State Salina and the financial support from he and Elaine, that will live on. Dean Starkey said, “His legacy is engrained in everything we do.”

To make a gift to the program Bill helped establish, please click here.

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