After cancer battle, 75-year-old lady 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 have to identify herself by her plane’s tail number. The region’s air traffic controllers recognize her voice as soon as it comes to life on the radio.

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

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

Women make up only about 4 percent of pilots in the country, and most of the women who fly actively are much younger than Rothwell and wealthier, since flying is such an expensive hobby. Rothwell does not. She lives alone in a small senior apartment in Point Loma and works full-time as a greeter at a local hospital, earning $15 an hour. Her only real 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 her parents were avid pilots who flew from the same airport, then called Gibbs Flying Service, in the 1940s and 1950s. Rothwell has a photo of herself at age 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 continue her mother’s flying legacy.

“I’ve never known anything but flying. It’s always been second nature to me,” she says. “Looking down on the earth up there puts everything in perspective. No problem is too big to overcome.”

Ann Rothwell photographed in 1949 at the age of 3 in the cockpit of her mother’s plane in San Diego.

(Tania Alcala Roos)

Born Ann Prario, Rothwell grew up in San Diego where her father, a former naval dentist who served in World War II, moved his family from San Jose, where he had taken his early flying lessons at Moffett Field in Mountain View in the mid forties.

When Dodie Prario learned to fly, she was one of only two female pilots in the local Armed Forces Aero Club and in 1947 was inducted into the Ninety-Nines, the International Association of 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, SC, in just over 24 hours.

Rothwell said she spent much of her childhood at the airport that she always assumed she would get her own plane one day, 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 moved to Houston, where her stepfather worked for NASA on the Apollo space program. Rothwell said her family lived in the same subsection as the Apollo astronauts and that she earned pocket money babysitting their children.

Ann Rothwell, 75, sits in the Cessna 172 during a Nov. 12 preflight check at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport.

(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Her dream was to fly, but her mother’s dream was that she would go to college first, so she attended college in Houston for two years until her mother and stepfather moved back to California. She dropped out of school immediately and got a job as a flight attendant, but had to give it up after two years when she married and had a son. Money was tight and her husband didn’t want her flying planes, so it would be 20 years before she got that chance.

Rothwell moved to San Diego in 1982 with her husband and son, and they divorced ten years later. Though she was finally free to fulfill her dream of flying, she couldn’t afford it. She rented a small Airstream trailer at Campland in Mission Bay, got a job at Scripps Hospital, and worked as a house sitter. After a few years, she had saved up enough money to start taking lessons, culminating in her first solo flight on December 2, 1995.

In the years that followed, Rothwell became a fixture in the San Diego flying community. She had volunteered every Sunday since 1997 as a mobile greeter at the San Diego International Airport, and she has spent more than 20 years doing both secretarial and volunteer services 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 Hall of Fame—paid it for her.

Ann Rothwell and Tania Rose prepare for a Nov. 12 flight at San Diego’s Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport.

(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Because of the many years Rothwell spent teaching FAA safety classes to new pilots, she instinctively knew she needed to ground herself in 2017, when the chemotherapy and radiation for her esophageal cancer began to affect her brain, breathing and emotions. In mid-2020, she was finally healthy enough to fly again, but didn’t have the money to pay for her classes to re-qualify.

Then an old friend came to her aid. Tania Rose was born in Mexico and after moving to the US she obtained degrees in psychology and transformative arts. Eighteen years ago, she moved from Boulder City, Nev., to San Diego and met Rothwell, who was living a dream Rose could only imagine at the time.

Like Rothwell, Rose was married to 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 in later life.

Flight Instructor Tania Rose and Ann Rothwell during a Nov. 12 preflight check at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport.

(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“When I met her she was so welcoming. My culture puts a lid on women. But aviation for me was a shifting consciousness. Flying has helped me break through the barriers and Ann has shown me and others what is possible. She gave 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 crawl back into the cockpit after her cancer battle inspired Rose to do the same. Initially, Rose was invited to sit in the backseat during Rothwell’s flying lessons in a four-seat Cessna. Now the two women gather for flights every Friday.

‘Ann has revived in me what is important in aviation: the miracle of flying. I lost that for a while,” Rose said. “I learned it’s about the gift of life and aviation, and she taught me that sharing the joy is the essence of aviation.”

Go to to see a video Rose made of Rothwell flying over San Diego recently.

Ann Rothwell (right) and flight instructor Tania Rose in a Cessna 172 at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport on Nov. 12.

(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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