A Pilot and His Dog: JetBlue Captain Rhett Benchwick Gives Back

If you ask JetBlue Capt. Rhett Benchwick, he’ll tell you he didn’t do anything special. He’ll tell you it was his best friend, Ed, who was the special one. Rhett simply shared Ed’s gift.

Ed (AKA Edward or Edwardo) was a purebred Golden Retriever, cream colored and larger than average, weighing in at 90 pounds. Apart from his noticeable beauty (an animal photographer asked to photograph Ed, who is now featured in books, calendars, and magazines), there was something different about Ed. He was remarkably loyal and obedient, even more so than most Golden Retrievers.

golden retriever, woodland hills, ca

Ed never used a leash and opted instead to carry his backpack or a ball in his mouth. The pair would often “go for a run” when Rhett was home—Rhett rode his beach cruiser, and Ed ran next to him on the sidewalk, stopping at every intersection to wait for Rhett’s command to cross. One day during a run, Ed got a little behind. A couple on their bicycles caught up to Rhett and asked, “Is that your dog back there?” Rhett looked back and there stood Ed, patiently waiting for his command to cross and continue to run beside his best friend.

When Rhett and Ed were asked to do pet therapy work after Rhett had a surgery of his own, they attended the prerequisite certification course. Just 30 minutes into the multi-day course, the instructor took Ed and Rhett into another room. She gave Ed commands, which he obeyed perfectly. Ed was certified on the spot.

“Right away, I could see he had a gift,” Rhett said. That gift was put to good use through thousands of patient and staff visits at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was the only therapy animal at the hospital allowed to be off leash. Ed would carry his backpack in his mouth and follow Rhett throughout the hospital. Rhett would go to a patient’s room and say, “There’s a Golden Retriever out there who wants to say hi. Would you like a visit?” Then, Rhett would call to Ed, who came through the door straight to the patient’s bed. He’d drop his backpack and put his head on the bed so the patient could reach him. Rhett gave each patient a collage with the message: “Ed hopes you feel better soon.”

On one such visit, Rhett handed the collage to a stroke victim, who—with Ed’s head on her lap—smiled and spoke her first word in the three months since the stroke: “Ed.” The two doctors who witnessed it told Rhett, “You do what we can’t.” But Rhett gave all the credit to Ed.

“He had a gift. I was blessed to share it,” he said.

The pediatric floors at Mass General made a formal request for Ed to be dedicated to those floors. Ed made an enormous impact on all patients, but his influence on children was especially powerful. Many pediatric patients were residents for months. Ed would climb into bed with kids in the ICU unit. Ever so carefully, with Rhett’s help, he would maneuver around all of the IV and electrical leads hooked up to the patients, and the children would wrap their arms around him. The pair would stay until Rhett could sense Ed’s presence had made a difference in the demeanor of the patient.

golden retriever, woodland hills, ca

Ed once visited a little girl in the pediatric ICU with a bone growth disorder. The treatment was to break her bones so she could grow. Ed put his head on her bed, but she couldn’t touch him. She looked at Rhett and cried, so Rhett picked Ed up and put his head against her face. Another patient was an ex-F-15 pilot who broke his neck when he fell off a stack of hay. He said he wanted to touch Ed but he was paralyzed from the neck down. When Ed’s head touched his face, he smiled.

It is difficult to measure exactly how big a difference Ed made in this world, but JetBlue was so inspired by him that they gave a little girl with a chronic respiratory illness a dream vacation to Disney World. One of Ed’s patients was so greatly impacted by his visits that after his recovery, he went on to train his own therapy dog.

After spending years comforting patients, Ed faced his own battle with liver cancer. This time, it was Ed who received comfort from his best friend, Rhett. In May 2017, Ed took his last breath with his head against Rhett’s and his beloved stuffed bear in his arms.

Ed lived a life full of joy and wonder, making a bigger impact on the world than many humans ever will. “It’s wonderful that, through his example, others may be inspired to continue making this world a better place to live. Many think it must be so cool to be a captain for a major airline. Yet that title or uniform never brought me as much pride as walking next to Ed,” said Rhett.

This inspiring story is just one example of how ALPA pilots—and their dogs—are giving back.