Soaring Success

Conventional wisdom tells us that natural ability is the best predictor of career success: You can’t make a living as a lawyer, computer programmer or engineer without some measure of aptitude for the field. While there’s some truth to that line of thinking, numerous recent studies have pointed out that ability is far from the only relevant factor. Traits such as optimism, resilience and even gratitude are arguably just as important.

Cheri Rohlfing next to a Delta Airlines AirplaineCheri Rohlfing ’96, ’01, offers a telling case in point. Twelve years ago, she landed her dream job as a pilot with Northwest Airlines. It was the product of hard work, her love of flying and, yes, her natural abilities. But less than a year into her new role, she lost that job because of factors beyond her control. It would have been easy to give up hope at that point. But Rohlfing persisted, never losing her passion for flying and even looking for ways to give back to the aviation community.

Eventually, those efforts—and that attitude—paid off in numerous and often unexpected ways.

READY FOR TAKEOFF

The epiphany hit when Rohlfing was a high school junior in Elk River, Minn. She was sitting in a science class—Aerospace Science, to be exact—when she realized she wanted to be a pilot. “It was an excellent class, and we had a great teacher,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I could do this as a career and make a pretty good living at it.’ I decided right there that I wanted to be a pilot for Northwest Airlines.”

The following summer she attended the Minnesota Aviation Career Education (ACE) Camp, a week-long, residential camp for high school students. The experience cemented her desire to fly. “It was really fun,” she notes. “There was a mix of classroom work, plus tours of different facilities. We even got to fly in planes, helicopters and gliders.”

Rohlfing built on that experience by taking flying lessons during her senior year of high school. During that year, she also applied to Minnesota State Mankato—in part because her father had graduated from the University, but also because it had a well-regarded aviation program. She earned her pilot’s license on the same day in 1992 that she moved to Mankato to begin the four-year Aviation Business Management program.

The program proved to be an ideal fit. The classes were challenging, covering everything from aviation law and airport management to aircraft electronic systems, navigation, aerospace propulsion and more. It provided students with experience on multi-engine planes. And it offered an option that worked particularly well for students like Rohlfing, who already had their pilot’s licenses: Qualified students could work as flight instructors. “Not all programs allow you to do that,” she says. “It was really great—I could work part time as an instructor. It was an excellent way to build experience for my career, and it also made me realize that I enjoyed teaching.”

After graduation, she took a job as a pilot flying a 19-passenger, turboprop plane for Great Lakes Airlines, a regional carrier. From there, she moved on to fly corporate jets for Mankato-based North Star Aviation. In May 2001, she was hired by Northwest Airlines as a DC-9 pilot. It was her big break. A decade after deciding on her career choice, she had made it.

Things would soon change, however.

GROUNDED

The 9/11 terrorist attacks had a devastating effect on the airline industry. Nearly every carrier suffered serious financial losses as fear of additional attacks choked off passenger demand. Business travel—a staple of airline revenues—dropped off as companies cancelled everything but essential trips. And the federal government instituted expensive new security measures. The result: Airlines began bleeding money and laying off employees (or providing “furloughs,” as they’re known in the industry). Rohlfing was furloughed in the fall of 2001.

While the move was a shock, she quickly rebounded. She began teaching as an adjunct instructor in Minnesota State Mankato’s Aviation Management program, eventually working up to a full-time position, and rediscovered an old passion. “It made me realize again how much I enjoy teaching,” she says. “It’s great to work in a college environment. The students are inquisitive and enthusiastic, and I just love sharing my love of aviation and working with them to help them reach their goals.”

As Rohlfing’s furlough extended through the mid-2000s, she threw herself into teaching. In 2005, she enrolled in the University’s one-year Experiential Education master’s degree program. “The program was excellent,” she says. “It emphasized hands-on techniques and methods for getting students involved in the classroom setting, rather than learning only by lectures. I also could focus on aviation-related projects during my coursework, so it was the perfect fit for me.”

In addition to her work at the University, Rohlfing helped start the Mankato-area chapter of Women in Aviation International, a nonprofit that encourages the advancement of women in aviation career fields. She also returned to the ACE Camp as a volunteer. A role on the camp’s planning committee soon turned into a new position as its director and chairperson—which she continues today. “It’s a lot of work and practically a full-time job in some respects, but I absolutely enjoy it,” she says. “There’s nothing like seeing a kid’s face when he or she flies in a helicopter or glider for the first time.”

BACK IN THE SKY

Northwest Airlines called Rohlfing back to work in 2007, shortly before the company merged with Delta. Today she’s the first officer on a Delta Airbus A-320 jet and flies primarily domestic U.S. routes. She’s not the only person who’s been brought back, either. In fact, the airline industry is now facing a pilot shortage fueled by the gradual economic rebound, a wave of retirements by aging Baby Boomer pilots and a range of other factors. Some observers suggest the industry could be on the cusp of the biggest wave of pilot hiring in history. “The airlines are scrambling to fill spots,” says Rohlfing. “Now is a great time to be a pilot—or to go to school to learn how to be one.”

She says she wouldn’t mind helping train future generations of pilots, perhaps teaching one class per semester or year as an adjunct instructor. But as much as she enjoys teaching, it doesn’t compare to her passion for flying. That deep-rooted love fueled her desire to get into education in the first place—and it provided her with the resilience to weather the challenge of a long furlough. “I love everything about flying—traveling, seeing the sun every day, going to new cities,” she notes. “I enjoy it when customers notice a nice landing, or when I can make someone’s travel experience easier or better.

“There’s never a day where I don’t want to go to work in the morning,” she adds. “I get to do what I love to do. What could be better than that?”