After battle with cancer, 75-year-old pilot says it’s never too late to earn your wings
When Ann Rothwell flies small planes in the airspace around San Diego County, she doesn’t need to bother to identify herself by her plane’s tail number. Air traffic controllers in the region recognize her voice as soon as it comes to life on the radio.
Rothwell, according to her friend and fellow pilot Tania Rose, is “a San Diego sky icon.”
For the past 26 years, the 75-year-old pilot has regularly flown Cessna and Piper Archer planes to and from airports in San Diego, Ramona, Carlsbad, Oceanside and more. A four-year battle with cancer saw Rothwell fly from 2017 to 2020. But with the help of a GoFundMe campaign Rose was launched last month to pay for Rothwell’s flying lessons, Rothwell is flying again. She made her first solo flight in five years on October 1.
Women make up only about 4% of the country’s pilots, and most of the women who actively fly are much younger than Rothwell and wealthier, because flying is such an expensive hobby. Rothwell is not. She lives alone in a small senior’s apartment in Point Loma and works full-time as a receptionist at a local hospital, earning $ 15 an hour. Her one and only luxury is her Friday morning flight lessons at the Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa.
Flying, Rothwell said, is something she was born to be. Both of his parents were avid pilots who flew in the 1940s and 1950s from the same airport, then called Gibbs Flying Service. Rothwell has a photo of her at the age of 3, sitting in the cockpit of her mother’s plane. Dodie Prario flew airplanes until her death in 1997 at the age of 89. Rothwell hopes to carry on his mother’s legacy of theft.
“I have never known anything other than to steal. It has always been second nature to me, ”she said. “When you’re up there looking at Earth, it puts things in perspective. No problem is too big to be overcome.
Born Ann Prario, Rothwell grew up in San Diego, where his father, a former Navy dentist who served in World War II, moved his family from San Jose, where he had taken his first flying lessons at Moffett Field. in Mountain View in the mid-1940s.
When Dodie Prario learned to fly, she was one of only two female pilots at the local armed forces flying club and was introduced in 1947 to the Ninety-Nines, the international association of female pilots. In June 1950, Dodie and her flight partner, Dottie Sanders, took fifth place in the fourth annual All Women Transcontinental Air Race, covering 2,400 miles from San Diego to Greenville, SC in just over 24 hours.
Rothwell said she spent so much of her childhood at the airport that she always thought she would have her own plane someday, but the wait would be long. Her parents divorced when she was young, and after graduating from high school in San Diego in the early 1960s, her family moved to Houston, where her stepfather worked for NASA in the Apollo space program. Rothwell said her family lived in the same housing estate as the Apollo astronauts and earned pocket money babysitting their children.
Her dream was to take a plane, but her mother’s dream was for her to go to university first. So she spent two years taking classes in Houston until her mother and stepfather returned to California. She immediately dropped out of school and got a job as a flight attendant, but had to drop out after two years when she married and had a son. Money was tight and her husband didn’t want his planes flying, so it would take her two decades before she got that chance.
Rothwell moved to San Diego with her husband and son in 1982, and they divorced a decade later. Even though she was finally free to fulfill her dream of flying, she couldn’t afford it. She rented a small Airstream trailer in Campland on Mission Bay, got a job at Scripps Hospital, and moonlighted as a babysitter. After a few years, she had saved enough money to start the lessons, which culminated in her first solo flight on December 2, 1995.
In the years that followed, Rothwell became a fixture in the San Diego pilot community. Since 1997, she has volunteered every Sunday as a mobile receptionist at San Diego International Airport and has worked for over 20 years as a secretary and volunteer for the Federal Aviation Administration. She couldn’t afford the $ 160 registration fee to join the Ninety-Nines association, so Fran Bera – a local aviation legend in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Hall of Fame – paid for it.
Due to the many years Rothwell spent lecturing on FAA safety to new pilots, she instinctively knew she had to put down roots in 2017, when chemotherapy and radiation therapy for her esophageal cancer started to affect her brain, her breathing and her emotions. Finally, by mid-2020, she was healthy enough to fly back on the plane, but lacked the money to pay for her classes to re-qualify.
Then an old friend came to his aid. Tania Rose was born in Mexico and after moving to the United States, she obtained degrees in Psychology and Transformative Art. Eighteen years ago, she moved from Boulder City, Nevada to San Diego and met Rothwell, who was living a dream Rose could only imagine at the time.
Like Rothwell, Rose had married a man who didn’t want her on a plane. But in 1997, Rose finalized her own divorce and followed in Rothwell’s footsteps. Soon after, she was working as a private pilot for a local real estate developer and as a flight instructor. Rose calls Rothwell her hero and inspiration for flying later in life.
“When I first met her, she was so welcoming. My culture puts a lid on women. But aviation was a changing consciousness for me. Flying has helped me break down barriers, and Ann has shown me and others what is possible. She gave us the door to ‘yes you can.’ ”
To focus on her painting and other work, Rose also took many years of flying. But seeing Rothwell return to the cockpit after his battle with cancer inspired Rose to do the same. At first, Rose was invited to sit in the back seat during Rothwell’s flying lessons in a four-seater Cessna. Now the two women meet for flights every Friday.
“Ann rekindled in me what is important in aviation: the miracle of flying. I lost that for a while, ”Rose said. “I’ve learned it’s about the gift of life and flying, and she taught me that the essence of flying is about sharing joy.
To see a video Rose took of Rothwell flying over San Diego recently, visit gofundme.com/f/help-ann-fly/.