Cascade High School graduate Commander Todd Zentner stands in front of an EA-18G “Growler” at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on Wednesday. Zentner graduated from Cascade in 1993, attended the Naval Academy and now serves as the Commander of the VAQ-133 Squadron known as the Wizards. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Cascade High School graduate Commander Todd Zentner stands in front of an EA-18G “Growler” at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on Wednesday. Zentner graduated from Cascade in 1993, attended the Naval Academy and now serves as the Commander of the VAQ-133 Squadron known as the Wizards. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Cascade High grad commands Growler squadron at Whidbey

OAK HARBOR — In the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, Todd Zentner would bike to his summer job at Hagen Farm in the Snohomish Valley. After spending the early morning hours picking crops, hoeing and weeding, he’d hurry over to Harvey Field on his lunch hour.

His father, Darryl Zentner, had previously earned his own private pilot’s license. “How’s he doing?” he asked Todd’s flight instructor. He summed up his assessment in three words: “He’s a natural.”

Todd Zentner earned his own private pilot’s license that summer at an age when most kids are still learning to drive, his dad said.

That was just one step in a goal his son set while a student at Everett’s Cascade High School: attending the United States Naval Academy.

He was accepted into the academy, graduating in 1998. He went on to pilot both the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Earlier this month, Todd Zentner, 42, assumed command of the Wizards of Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ 133 based there.

“I love the community I’m a part of and leading people,” he said. “It’s a privilege to wear the uniform.”

His advancement through the ranks doesn’t surprise John Shoup, Zentner’s Cascade High swim coach, who said Zentner led the team by example.

“He was respectful, well grounded, hard working,” Shoup said. “As he walked out of the school, you had no doubt he was going to do wonderful things with his life.”

Zentner’s dad remembers his son’s interest in flying began at an early age. After watching the movie “Top Gun,” about a young Naval aviator, “he wanted to be Maverick, Tom Cruise’s character,” Darryl Zentner said.

He and his son watched Blue Angels performances whenever they were flying in the Northwest.

Darryl Zentner and his wife, Susan Zentner of Arlington, proudly turn the pages of photo albums marking the milestones in their son’s life: a high school student standing beside a red-and-white Cessna at Harvey Field; meeting U.S. Sen. John McCain at the Naval Academy in 1996; their son inside the cockpit of a Goshawk during pilot training in 1999, and returning from his first deployment flying an EA-6B Prowler in 2004.

“Flying Naval aircraft off a carrier is probably the highest degree of aviation skill anyone could imagine,” his dad said.

“When you have someone who is able to attend the Naval Academy, complete pilot training and rise through the ranks of responsibility, it’s pretty gratifying and sort of humbling, too.”

Both he and his wife were on hand for the recent ceremony “busting buttons” as their son assumed command of the squadron. “He’s the buck-stops-here guy now,” his dad said.

When on deployment, Todd Zentner is away from his family for months at time. That means being separated from his wife, Esen Zentner, a Mount Vernon pediatrician, as well as his children, Owen, 7 and Madelyn, 3. The kids struggle to understand their dad’s absences.

When Zentner is asked to speak to high school students interested in going to the Naval Academy, he advises them to figure out what classes they need and take that plan to their school counselor.

“Some of the best people to work with are those who have to work hard to get what they’ve gotten, that things didn’t come easily,” he said.

It’s a life lesson he experienced. Zentner wasn’t accepted to the Naval Academy the first time he applied. That happened despite having a 3.6 GPA, being a commencement speaker at his high school graduation, being selected as class president for two of his three years there, and being a member of the swim team and jazz band.

So after graduating from Cascade in 1993, he attended a semester of prep school and took classes at Shoreline Community College. He was accepted into the academy in July 1994.

Zentner has logged 2,600 flying hours and has made 642 landings on carriers. His most recent seven-month deployment was in the South China Sea. The duties of he and others in the squadron were to block signals, including radar to detect planes and ships.

“It’s hard not to argue that what we do is fun, challenging, neat and cool,” he said. “It brings out some of that excitement you had as a kid.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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