Durango woman on track to take flight as a commercial pilot – The Durango Herald
Eliana Rothwell became captivated by aviation watching air tankers battle wildfires
Rothwell is working with United Airlines to complete its pilot career development program, Aviate. Becoming a commercial pilot for United Airlines is the best-case scenario, she said. (Courtesy of Eliana Rothwell)
Eliana Rothwell grew up in Durango and is working to break the glass ceiling for women in the aviation industry.
Rothwell is the president and founder of Women in Aviation Delaware Diamond Chapter. She also studies aviation at Delaware State University and is working to become a commercial pilot.
In 2020, 8.4% of pilots were women, according to a Federal Aviation Administration study, and as a child, Rothwell didn’t see much opportunity for her in the industry.
In the past, the aviation industry was dominated by retired military men, she said.
“I didn’t know that is was going to be an option for me, mainly just because in the small town of Durango, I didn’t know a lot of pilots, especially female pilots and people of color that are pilots,” she said.
Rothwell is Hispanic and was born in Mexico. She was adopted by a Durango family at birth. She remembers always having an interest in flying.
“I always thought it was fascinating to see the planes, especially during the wildfires – seeing them kind of swoop in and save the day,” she said. “I always wondered what it would be like to be in the cockpit but I never really pursued anything … for a long time,” she said.
While Rothwell was trying to work out what she wanted to do with her life, neighbor and former commercial pilot Joe Tumminaro took her to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the world’s largest air show, AirVenture.
“When I took her out there she said, ‘You know, this is nice, but women don’t do this,’” Tumminaro said. “Out comes the daughter of my wife’s college roommate, a 747 captain flying cargo all over the world. She sat down with Eliana and Eliana said ‘Really? Really? You can do that?’”
At the air show, Tumminaro introduced Rothwell to many other female pilots.
Tumminaro also took Rothwell on her first flight inside the cockpit in his 1944 Beech 18. Together, they flew up, around and down the valley, over the college and back to the airport. Tumminaro let Rothwell take the controls.
From that point on, Rothwell knew she loved flying and wanted to pursue it.
“I look for that tipping point that’s like, ‘Holy crap, I’m really going to fly. This is really incredible,’” Tumminaro said. “That’s when the fire gets roaring and she’s got that fire lit. She’s smart, she knows how to do it. She knows how to study and work hard for it.”
Eliana Rothwell is Hispanic and was born in Mexico. She was adopted by a Durango family at birth. She remembers always having an interest in flying. (Courtesy of Eliana Rothwell)
Rothwell transferred from Fort Lewis College to Delaware State University in spring 2019. In March 2020, she and other students were sponsored by the university to attend the Women in Aviation International Conference.
“The conference is pure women in aviation – every realm: mechanics, engineers, flight attendants, pilots,” she said. “It’s the most powerful and impactful event you could ever attend in your life, being a woman in aviation.”
Ever since attending the conference, Rothwell wanted to start a WAI Chapter in Delaware. COVID-19 hindered her plans, but by September 2021, Rothwell finally had the ball rolling.
The chapter now meets once a month for activities and discussion about topics of women in aviation.
When the WAI International Conference returned in 2022, Rothwell and other members of the WAI Chapter board were expecting to once again be sponsored by the university to attend. Because of a COVID-19 surge in February, DSU was unable to send students to the conference.
“I was heartbroken,” she said.
But Rothwell was determined to get herself and seven other chapter members to Nashville, Tennessee, for the conference, so she decided to use her newly established WAI Chapter to raise the money on her own.
In three weeks, Rothwell and the WAI Chapter board gained a sponsorship from Amazon and raised $13,000 through United, Piedmont and Alaskan airlines, and GoFundMe donations.
“The aviation community is tight-knit,” she said. “Within the first week we had upward of five grand and I thought, ‘Hey, this is actually doable!’”
Lala Holmes was one of the seven who attended the 2022 WAI conference because of Rothwell’s determination. Holmes is the secretary of WAI Diamond Delaware Chapter and is a senior at DSU studying aviation.
“She really is an inspiration to me. She’s a really graceful, forgiving and honest type of person. I really respect her,” Holmes said. “It meant a lot because it was a lot of money. We got to meet with a lot of airlines. She worked so hard to get us there.”
Because of an omicron surge in February, Delaware State University was unable to sponsor students to the annual Woman in Aviation Conference. But Rothwell was determined to get herself and seven other chapter members to Nashville, Tennessee, for the conference, so she decided to use her newly established WAI Chapter to raise the money on her own. (Courtesy of Eliana Rothwell)
Rothwell is now working with United Airlines to complete its pilot career development program, Aviate. Becoming a commercial pilot for United Airlines is the best-case scenario, Rothwell said.
“For so long, Durango was so small and United was one of the only airlines that flew into Durango and it was the only airline we could fly out of. That’s how I got to explore other cultures and see new things and grow as a person was through United,” she said. “And then getting older and getting into the industry more, I have connected with and understand their mission a lot.”
One of Rothwell’s biggest goals is to inspire other women and people of color to become pilots.
“I feel like as women we kind of look up more toward other females and say, ‘Oh, if she can do it, I can do it.’ I didn’t have a lot of that growing up,” she said. “It means a lot for me to be in aviation, especially as a woman of color. I hope I can inspire more youth to be in it.”