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After cancer battle, 75-year-old lady pilot says it’s never too late to earn your wings

Ann Rothwell, 74 years old, during a pre-flight check. (Pam Kragen/ The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

When Ann Rothwell pilots small planes in the airspace around San Diego County, she needn’t bother identifying herself by the tail number of her aircraft. The region’s air traffic controllers recognize her voice as soon as it crackles to life on the radio.

Rothwell, according to her friend and fellow pilot Tania Rose, is “an icon of the San Diego skies.”

Over the past 26 years, the now-75-year-old pilot has been regularly flying Cessna and Piper Archer planes in and out of the airports in San Diego, Ramona, Carlsbad, Oceanside and more. A four-year battle with cancer grounded Rothwell’s ability to fly from 2017 to 2020. But with the help of a GoFundMe campaign Rose launched last month to pay for Rothwell’s flight lessons, Rothwell is soaring again. She completed her first solo flight in five years on Oct. 1.

Women make up only about 4 percent of the nation’s pilots, and most of the women who are actively flying are much younger than Rothwell and more wealthy, as flying is such an expensive hobby. Rothwell is not. She lives alone in a small Point Loma senior apartment and works full time as a greeter at a local hospital, earning $15 an hour. Her one and only luxury is her Friday morning flying lessons at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa.

Flying, Rothwell said, is something she was born to do. Both of her parents were avid pilots who flew in the 1940s and ’50s out of the same airport, which was then called Gibbs Flying Service. Rothwell has a photograph of herself at age 3 sitting in the cockpit of her mother’s plane. Dodie Prario flew planes until her death in 1997 at age 89. Rothwell hopes to carry on her mother’s flying legacy.

“I have never known anything else than flying. It was always second nature to me,” she said. “When you’re up there looking down on the Earth, it puts things in perspective. No problem is too big to overcome.”

Born Ann Prario, Rothwell grew up in San Diego, where her father, a former Navy dentist who served in World War II, moved his family from San Jose, where he’d 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 women pilots in the local Armed Forces Aero Club and she was initiated in 1947 to the Ninety-Nines, the international association for women pilots. In June 1950, Dodie and her flying partner, Dottie Sanders, took fifth place in the fourth annual All Women Transcontinental Air Race, flying 2,400 miles from San Diego to Greenville, S.C., in just over 24 hours.

Rothwell said she spent so much of her childhood at the airport that she always assumed she’d get her own plane someday, but the wait would be a long one. Her parents divorced when she was young, and after she finished high school in San Diego in the early 1960s, her family relocated to Houston, where her stepfather worked for NASA in the Apollo space program. Rothwell said her family lived in the same subdivision as the Apollo astronauts and she earned pocket money babysitting their children.

Her dream was to fly but her mom’s dream was for her to get a university education first, so she spent two years taking college classes in Houston until her mom and stepdad moved back to California. She immediately dropped out of school and got a job as a flight attendant but had to give that up after two years when she got married and had a son. Money was tight and her husband didn’t want her flying planes, so it would be two decades before she would get that chance.

Rothwell relocated to San Diego with her husband and son in 1982, and they divorced a decade later. Although she was finally free to fulfill her dream of flying, she couldn’t afford it. She rented a tiny Airstream trailer at Campland on Mission Bay, got a job with Scripps Hospital and moonlighted as a housesitter. After a few years, she had enough money saved to begin lessons, which culminated in her first solo flight on Dec. 2, 1995.

In the years that followed, Rothwell became a fixture of the San Diego flying community. Since 1997, she had volunteered every Sunday as a mobile greeter at San Diego International Airport and she has worked for more than 20 years doing both secretarial and volunteer work for the Federal Aviation Administration. She couldn’t afford the $160 initiation fee to join the Ninety-Nines association, so Fran Bera — a local flying legend in the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s hall of fame — paid it for her.

Because of the many years Rothwell spent giving FAA safety lectures to new pilots, she knew instinctively that she had to ground herself in 2017, when the chemotherapy and radiation for her esophageal cancer began affecting her brain, breathing and emotions. Finally in mid-2020, she was healthy enough to fly again, but lacked the money to afford her lessons to requalify.

Then an old friend came to her rescue. Tania Rose was born in Mexico, and after moving to the U.S., she earned degrees in psychology and transformative art. Eighteen years ago, she relocated from Boulder City, Nev., to San Diego and met Rothwell, who was living a dream that Rose could only imagine at the time.

Like Rothwell, Rose had married a man who didn’t want her to fly. But in 1997, Rose finalized her own divorce and followed in Rothwell’s footsteps. Before long, she was working as a private pilot for a local real estate developer and working as a flight instructor. Rose calls Rothwell her hero and her inspiration for flying later in life.

“When I met her, she was so welcoming. My culture puts a lid on women. But aviation was a shifting consciousness for me. Flying helped me break down the barriers, and Ann has shown me and others what’s possible. She has given us the doorway of ‘yes, you can.’ “

To focus on her painting and other work, Rose also took many years away from flying. But seeing Rothwell get back in the cockpit after her cancer battle 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-seat Cessna. Now, the two women get together for flights every Friday.

“Ann rekindled in me what’s 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 aviation, and she has taught me the bottom line of aviation is sharing the joy.”

To see a video Rose took of Rothwell flying recently over San Diego, visit gofundme.com/f/help-ann-fly/.

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