They are a rare breed of men and women — FAA Certified Flight Instructors. And have no doubt, these are hardy souls who willingly allow novice pilots to fly them around day after day, in good weather and bad, enduring everything from awkward skids to back-of-the-curve approaches until their charges are seasoned enough to pass the requisite flight tests. At Willamette Aviation, our CFIs are among the best around: high-hour pilots who love teaching the art of the airplane. Come take an introductory flight to find out how challenging — and fun — flying can be.
Willamette Aviation Chief Flight Instructor Steve Thornton loves to teach because it allows him to share his love of flying with other pilots, be they first-time students or multi-rated aviators. Steve also says that teaching flying allows him to pursue every pilot's first goal — to always be better. Steve is an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor with more than 2,400 hours in the right seat as a CFI, and he holds six FAA ratings. Besides flying, he enjoys skiing, back-packing, and scuba-diving.
Stan Swan is a native Oregonian who discovered a love of flying while in his teens, leading him to serve as a Civil Air Patrol cadet throughout high school and most of his university career. After a tour in the Army, he learned to fly on the GI Bill, earning his Commercial, Instrument and CFI ratings. Stan then transitioned to the business world, rising to management positions in several local manufacturing companies, and after a long hiatus he has returned to flight instruction, his first love. Stan owns a Piper Comanche 260, which has provided him with most of his aviation experience. He always looks forward to introducing many new pilots to the world of aviation, while helping old pros become better and safer at what they do.
Mindy Fisher grew up with a Marine Pilot father, and she followed his footsteps into aviation, and eventually the military. Mindy earned her Private Pilot certificate when she was just 19, in Great Falls, Montana. Since then, she's earned multiple FAA ratings, including Multi-Engine Instructor. In the meantime, Mindy completed her college education, served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and she finds time to teach equine therapy classes. At Willamette Aviation, Mindy combines her love of teaching with her love of flying. She also feels a strong bond with the aviation community. "It's not just a community, but also a family," she says. "Everyone feels welcome to be here."
Josh Thomas has lived in Oregon for most of his life, and he knew from a young age that he wanted to become a pilot. After attending college for two years and deciding to take some time off, he packed a bag and started traveling the world. Nearly two years and 26 countries later, Josh decided it was time to pursue flight in earnest. Training five days a week, he earned his commercial pilot license in just eight months. And now, with a desire to share his love of flying and adventure, he's a CFI at Willamette Aviation with an eye on the airlines in the not-too-distant future.
Brian Whitaker grew up in Whitefish, Mont., where he first learned about flying from his father, who was a Private Pilot. After joining the Army in 2009, he decided that he would pursue a career as a professional pilot after he left the military. He started his flight career in 2013 with helicopters, but later decided to transition to fixed-wing aircraft because of their extensive range and many flying opportunities. Brian has a degree in Business Management and Aviation Science from Portland Community College. When not flying, he enjoys being in the great outdoors with his dog, as well as floating on the river with his friends in the summer. "I discovered my love of teaching in the Army," Brian says, "and now I want to share my passion for aviation with new students who are learning how to fly."
Katherine Brooks found love for aviation at a young age when her uncle took her for a flight in his T-34. After beginning flight training at the age of 20, she completed her Commercial Pilot Certificate in six months and shortly thereafter earned her Certified Flight Instructor Instrument Certificate. Having logged over 500 hours of flight instruction and earning a Professional Pilot Associate Degree, Katherine sought new adventures and relocated to Oregon from Florida. She looks forward to helping others achieve their aviation goals!
Josh Peterson was born and raised in Southern California. After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy as an Information Technology specialist. While in the military, Josh managed communications for the Special Operations community. After leaving the service, he took up wildland firefighting, working on various crews and engines, and he intends to return to firefighting eventually, this time as a tanker pilot. Josh took advantage of the GI Bill to complete all of his aviation ratings up to CFI, based for a time in Central Oregon. Now flying at Willamette Aviation in Aurora, he looks forward to meeting pilots and helping them reach their goals.
Chris Reese has had a passion for aviation from an early age. Pictures of his grandfather flying in the U.S. Navy, along with the discovery flights his parents gifted him as a teen, helped to solidify his desire to fly (the release of Top Gun when he was very young probably helped as well). After enlisting in the U.S. Navy and completing two deployments, Chris spent 12 years in the firearms industry. He then took advantage of a Veterans Administration benefit that covers flight training, moved to Oregon, and completed an Aviation Science degree at Central Oregon Community College. Chris is now instructing at Willamette Aviation, while also working on an Operations Management degree at the Oregon Institute of Technology. When not flying, he can usually be found rolling around the airport or in the local area on his Onewheel.
Bryant Vasquez grew up in Portland and began flying at the age of 14. After graduating high school, he earned his Private Pilot certificate and then quickly moved on to Commercial Pilot with additional ratings. Bryant has always had the goal of becoming an airline pilot — when he was 19, he joined the Horizon Air pilot program, which helped him become a Certified Flight Instructor. "Having great instructors throughout my training is what made me want to start teaching," Bryant says. "I'm looking forward to helping aspiring pilots achieve their aviation goals as well."
Nevena Starcevic lived in Serbia for most of her life, moving to the United States a few years ago. Her first stop was Alaska, where she took a discovery flight and fell in love with aviation. She rapidly progressed through flight training, earning her Certified Flight Instructor certificate just one year after her first lesson. During her training, Nevena enjoyed bush flying and exploring the Alaskan wilderness. She moved to Oregon in 2021 and looks forward to teaching people how to fly. "Helping students achieve their potential in aviation offers the greatest challenge to the instructor," Nevena says, "as well as the greatest reward."
Kyle Francia resided in Manila for most of his life, where he worked in both food & beverage consulting and business incubation. Since then, he's moved to Oregon to fulfill a lifelong dream: a professional career in aviation. With experience in both the Oregon and Nevada airspaces, he has developed a passion for instructing — and he hopes to help others become better pilots, even after he transitions to the airlines. Kyle hopes to meet all of you out in the airport — and if you surf, he'd be happy to meet you at the coast.
Juan Cammarata is originally from Venezuela, but he began his flying career as a student pilot in Daytona Beach. He earned his Commercial Certificate in just seven months and then returned to Venezuela to convert his FAA certification to an ICAO equivalent. Juan then enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, pursuing a bachelor's degree in Aeronautics. Transferring to Embry-Riddle's Portland campus, Juan adapted to using our local volcanoes as visual reference-points. "I was lucky to have found excellent flight instructors at the beginning of my aviation career," he says. "Since day one, I have known that a good pilot is a safe pilot, and that is one of the main things that I want to pass onto my students."
Caleb Bauer lived in Hawaii for most of his life, where he enjoyed all that the islands have to offer, such as surfing and diving. His passion for flying started as a child, when he did a lot of traveling with his family and he realized that flights on airplanes were exciting. As a senior in high school, when Caleb had to decide on a career, he realized nothing would be better for him than professional aviation. He completed his flight training in Oregon with both CFII and MEI ratings. When not flying, he enjoys snowboarding, backpacking, and playing the drums. "My style of instructing is focused on two major aspects," Caleb says. "Safety-oriented professionalism, and having fun. Flying, and flight training, is something to be enjoyed."
Grant Feetham is a native Oregonian who grew up in the Willamette Valley and always was interested in airplanes, even though he never thought he would become a pilot. After high school, he earned an Associate's Degree in Emergency Medical Technology and a Paramedic License. Over the following decade, Grant took on various roles within the fire service, EMS, and the medical field. When he decided it was time for a change, he was encouraged to explore aviation by a family member who was a captain for a major U.S. airline. He completed his flight training in both Oregon and Colorado, and he currently is a CFII and MEI. "After my first flight lesson, in a Cessna 150, I was hooked," Grant says. "I enjoy helping others discover their love for aviation."
Sam Ellis has spent most of his life in the Portland area and loves to call this beautiful part of the country home. Growing up, he would build and fly model airplanes, which is where his passion for aviation began. Sam has always been drawn to exploration, so early in his career he decided to abandon working in an office and instead pursued aviation. In less than two years he completed all of his flight training, including Flight Instructor and Instrument Instructor. "From a young age I was always the person looking towards the sky every time I heard an airplane overhead," he says. "I love talking aviation and helping aspiring pilots achieve whatever goals they may be working toward."
Ron Vandehey is a native Oregonian who enjoys all that Oregon has to offer: team roping, downhill skiing, hunting, fishing, and more. He's a firefighter by profession, but also a pilot who has had a passion for airplanes since childhood. Ron started flying in the 1980s, eventually earning multiple certificates and ratings. He took a short time away from aviation to raise a family. Now a CFII, Ron gets to fulfill a lifelong dream — teaching others how to fly.
Ian McDonough, a Seattle native, began his aviation career as a pilot for the US Marine Corps flying OV-10 Broncos. After seven years as a Marine, he flew charter flights in California before being hired by his first major airline, Continental Airlines flying Boeing 727s. He then joined Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), spending five years flying in the jungles and mountains of Indonesian New Guinea. In 1989 Ian was hired by his second major airline and finished his career as a 737 Captain for Alaska Airlines. Ian now serves as a CFI to share the joy, enthusiasm, and challenges of an avocation that gave him an incredibly satisfying career.