by Laura Kussman
Bethany Carter’s love of flying began in sixth grade when a pilot at a Young Eagles event on Orcas Island offered her a ride in a Beechcraft Musketeer — a low-wing, single-engine, four-seat airplane.
Soaring above the deep blue tidal currents of the Salish Sea peppered with mounds of rock and limestone floating up to greet the elements, Carter was inspired. When they landed, she seized another opportunity the Young Eagles were offering — access to Sporty’s Learn to Fly Test Prep online course. Her path was beginning to take shape.
“I got really excited about flying,” she shared over the phone one morning before school. “I went online to research steps I needed to take to get my pilot certificate.”
It was a few years later that Bob Waunch, Orcas’ Airhawks Flight Club Founder and current Secretary/Treasurer, heard about Carter — now 15 years old — at the library from a mother of one of her friends and reached out for an introduction.
“She’s one of those kids who has a burning desire to fly. She’s already done quite a bit of studying,” Waunch shared.
Carter applied for the Airhawks youth scholarship and a day later was accepted. This spring, she will begin her pilot training as the first female to ever join Airhawks Flight Club since its inception as an aviation resource at the library in 1994. Carter’s scholarship will amount to $4,000 — about half the cost needed to get her pilot’s license. Since flight trainees pay their fees associated with instruction, gas, hangar and insurance, Waunch says in addition to the scholarship, becoming a member of the club and moving through the training at an accelerated pace will help offset costs.
“That means flying two to three times a week while you’re training,” he said, “The brain learns through repetition. By so doing, it takes fewer flights to qualify to get your license than it would if you spaced your hours out.”
About the program
To date, 22 scholarships totaling almost $40,000 have helped students in the San Juan Islands obtain their private pilot’s license.
David Billings, an Orcas Islander originally from the Seattle area, says scholarships like this one are novel. Billings is one of four local Airhawks Flight Club members who received their Private Pilot Certification this year. The others are Ken Loock, David Janecek and recent Orcas Island High School graduate Jaydon Krisch Derr.
Both Krisch and Carter say without the scholarship, they would have had a harder time completing their flight training before pursuing dreams at extremely competitive academies. In July, Kirsch began his first year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island.
“When I found the Airhawks Flight Club was available on Orcas, I felt really fortunate,” Billings shared candidly over the phone. “If you’re a kid that grows up here on the island, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to get off the island for employment. The scholarship program for the high schoolers is really great. Bob Waunch, Tony [Simpson] and Rick [Fant] put a lot of effort into this because they believe it’s important. It takes a lot of time to run a nonprofit and they do it really well.”
Billings said an additional benefit of the club is Airhawks instructor Tony Simpson — a retired Air Force pilot with years of service whom Loock calls “a no-BS instructor.”
“It’s unusual to have someone with 7,000 flight hours teaching students. Down in Seattle at the Rainier flight school, if you have an instructor with 400 hours, you’re thinking you’re really lucky,” Billings shared. “The instructor decides when you’re ready to take the airplane by yourself, called soloing. It’s a date you remember.”
Billings, too, grew up captivated by flying. At a young age, he and his father, who was an engineer for Boeing, would sit at the Seattle/Tacoma Airport and listen to air traffic control towers together. He began developing a career in design and construction, eventually landing jobs for United Airlines designing and building flight terminals and for Alaska Airlines designing airport lounges. But it was when he moved to Orcas Island full-time that Billings’ interest in becoming a pilot himself piqued.
Attracted to the utilitarian aspect of being able to fly to and from a home island, Billings, Loock and Janecek all said having quicker and easier access to the mainland is a huge plus for them. On average a flight from Eastsound to Bellingham takes about 10 minutes, and a flight to Seattle only about an hour.
Janecek said, “I enjoy the way the plane moves. I bicycle, I motorcycle. Anything that moves is something I like. I make small trips to Skagit and Bellingham. Eventually, I might work myself up to fly to Renton field. But for now, it’s short trips. My dream is to purchase an airplane and have a hangar. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”
Airhawks offers aircraft rental for students at $110 an hour. Waunch says comparable rental rates are typically $160 an hour.
For Loock, who shared he’s the type of person who always looks up when he hears a plane, it was always on his radar to get his pilot’s license. He moved with his wife and two daughters from Minnesota to Orcas three years ago to take a job at OPALCO and soon learned about Airhawks.
“It wasn’t ever as handy to do anywhere else as it is here on Orcas. To be able to fly to the mainland here — it gave me a reason to do it, maybe not the best reason, but a reason,” he said.
Both Loock and Janecek said it took them over a year to complete the training and acquire their licenses, managing to do so amid setbacks from COVID-19 and work and family schedules. But now, their spouses can enjoy the open skies with them as frequently as they like, helping dial up the frequencies on the radio and celebrating with their rewarding milestone.
Billings said. “It’s such a cool feeling, it’s an amazing opportunity. Growing up I got in my head I wouldn’t be able to do this but here I realized, no, it’s totally doable.”
Since Federal Aviation Regulations require an individual be at least 16 years of age to operate an aircraft solo and 17 years of age to obtain a private pilot certificate, Carter plans to have her Private Pilot Certificate in hand right when she turns 17, poised to take off toward her future.
She said, “My dream is to fly in the Air Force. I want to go to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I’m very grateful for Airhawks Flight School because it gave me the opportunity to actually make things happen. I’m just super excited about flying. I hope to make others excited, too.”
Airhawks Flight Club is looking to grow the organization and continue its focus on encouraging new pilots. To be a member of the club, it’s $500 to join (which pays for the first years insurance) and then $50 per month (which pays for ongoing insurance). To learn more about the scholarship program and rental arrangements, call Bob Waunch at 360-376-2450.