Note: All photos shared by Rowen Stephens, Peter Morton, Fred Lundahl and Nydia Blood.
A young man who imagined being a pilot in 2017 has nearly completed training at an Arizona Aeronautical University, nailed a commercial pilot’s license and, recently earned his flight instructor’s license as well.
When Rowen Stephens was in eighth grade at the Whidbey Island Waldorf School, he reached out to a trio of mentors who got him started in flying planes: local pilots Fred Lundahl, Aaron Simpson and Peter Morton. The South Whidbey Record ran a story about Stephens’ class project in an April 2017 issue.
“I have always been interested in flying,” Rowen wrote in a recent email. ”I suppose I never stopped running outside to look up at airplanes. I would say my first serious start would be with my 8th grade project at the Waldorf school. There Peter Morton, Fred Lundahl and Aaron Simpson mentored me and gave me the most inspirational and welcoming introduction to the aviation world anyone could ever ask for. After that mentorship I was hooked. Peter, Fred and Aaron showed me that my dreams where possible with a little elbow grease and a lot of support.”
At the time 31-year-old Aaron Simpson co-owned a Cessna 150 Aerobat plane named Scarlett with Fred Lundahl, a Langley businessman who teaches folks to fly from Whidbey Airpark. Lundahl is founder of the South Whidbey Flying Club.
“From first meeting Rowen, it was obvious that he had an aptitude for aviation,” Simpson noted in an email. “Not many of us are blessed with the twin fortunes of knowing what we love and being naturally talented at it. Early in his journey it was clear he was one of the lucky ones.”
As someone who knew about the love of flying, Lundahl recalled his mentoring of Aaron Simpson:
“We bought the little red airplane, Aaron and I in 2014,” Lundahl said in a recent chat. “Aaron’s idea was to build up his hours to get an airline job and education for professional development. He got a job flying twin engine planes taking photos for surveyors. He is now a check captain for Horizon. When he moved from Whidbey, I bought him out and became the sole owner.”
Later, Stephens would earn his private pilot’s license at the age of 17 through lessons with Lundahl.
Peter Morton, a consultant in aviation training and leadership, a retired Boeing executive, and past Langley city council member, maintains connections with Boeing and some of its customers. By the generosity of Alaska Airlines, he was able to introduce Stephens to a rare opportunity: practice flying in a Boeing 737 full flight simulator; the top of the line training device by which airline pilots get their qualification. Peter also spent time taking Rowen flying in a modern general aviation airplane, a Cirrus SR 20 operated by the Boeing Employees Flying Association.
“Rowen is a remarkable young man,” Morton said. “He is a young man who learns quickly, accepts responsibility seriously, and pays it forward to others.”
Simpson also flew with Stephens: “We went on several trips together, one to meet with a manager at the airline where I now work and another to a black tie gala, and his maturity and professional spirit shone bright in both outings,” Simpson added. “I’m now an instructor at my airline, and I hope that Rowen might consider joining us so I could have the privilege of teaching him to fly these wondrous jets, which we use to serve and connect our communities in the Northwest.”
During the 2017 summer prior to attending high school, Stephens enrolled in a free ground school training program sponsored by the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
“An example of Rowen’s resourcefulness, independence, and dedication,” Morton wrote in a scholarship recommendation letter for Stephens, “before entering high school, he attended the Museum of Flight Private Pilot Ground School. His performance in the program was excellent and he caught the attention of the museum staff.”
After graduating from the Whidbey Island Waldorf School, Stephens attended South Whidbey High School. He continued his interest in becoming a pilot. To help fund the cost of paying for gas to fly, Morton asked Bill Leeds of Rotary Club of Whidbey Westside for scholarship help.
“Peter asked me to take him under my wing at Rotary,” Bill Leeds said in a phone call. “Rowen wanted to start a flight club. I was a director of Whidbey Westside at the time.”
Leeds had wanted to resurrect a Rotary youth program called Interact, which provided community service options for high school students. In Stephens’ case, the community service was his starting a flight club at the high school.
Interact continues to this day, with Gwen Jones as Rotary International representative for Interact at South Whidbey High School. While the flight club is not active nowadays, the current group works with non-profits, such as Good Cheer, and helps with book sales at the Freeland Library, among other projects. Students earn credits toward a mandated 20 hours of community service prior to graduation.
Back to the first Interact club in 2017, Leeds said: “Rowen taught ground school in a classroom and grew the club from one to 15 kids in a few months. Rowen is an extraordinary individual. He started this club and what we discovered was he would get the kids’ attention. They would do community projects—they formed a group of guides to take tourists through Langley, for instance.”
In exchange for the flight clubs’ community service, the Rotary, through its Interact program, paid for half the cost of gas of flying Scarlett. Lundahl donated his time teaching the students to fly.
Stephens recalled formation of the new flight club within the community service arm of Interact.
“Oh, man, was it an uphill battle at first. But with persistence and a lot, and I mean, a lot of back and forth with the Rotary Club, we prevailed and we created the flight club. The final key to the puzzle was finding a faculty mentor and space to meet at the high school. [Then Spanish teacher] Jenny Gochenauer stepped forward without hesitation to both of those issues. She showed me and helped me realize that I could not only live my aviation dreams but share them with the world.”
Following four years at the high school, Stephens graduated and was accepted to a university specializing in flight education.
“Rowen’s going to the Cadillac of aeronautical schools,” Leeds noted.
Now with 75 percent of his studies at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott AZ, complete, Rowen is back on Whidbey Island working at Chase Bank and teaching folks how to fly Scarlett. He will complete the remainder of his studies online.
“I’ll graduate with a BS in Aeronautics and a minor in Security and Intelligence Studies, Rowen wrote in an email. “[Flight] instruction for me is something I have wanted to do for a while now, because I love teaching. While it is a step in the process of becoming an airline transport pilot, I really do enjoy it, especially having the opportunity to instruct at the South Whidbey Flying Club. The end goal is to fly for an airline, whoever that is a few years out.”
Fred Lundahl, who has mentored Stephens since 2017, added: “When he got back here he wanted to become an instructor. In January of this year we flew together. He’d done written tests at Embry Riddle. We had to fly a certain number of hours to qualify for flight instructor’s rating.”
To pass the test required an all day oral and flying test. Scarlett and Stephens flew to the Arlington Airport.
“He’s the first person I’ve known who passed it on the first try,” Lundahl said. “When he earned that rating, he started teaching with our club. Now he has a student, an NAS Whidbey guy. Rowen will be getting other students as we get the plane back in service. He has come full circle from being an eighth grader to getting his license, going to Embry and coming here.”
Grateful to the village of folks who supported him along the way, Stephens said, “Peter, Fred, Aaron, Bill, Ed [the late Ed Halloran, who helped with Leeds in forming the 2017 Interact Flight Club]and Jenny are what makes this place we call home so special. Aviation is a community. We all help each other out. Without amazing mentors and leaders I would not be on the path I am on. All I can say is that hometown heroes are what makes this place special. And I am surrounded by them.”