JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas --
Flying without an engine isn’t on most bucket lists, but it’s one of Lt. Col. Chris Rothe’s favorite ways to spend time, and because the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has a need for that skill, the 70th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot gets to fly sans power as a Reservist, and gets to use his soaring skills to instruct Cadets and Wounded Warriors.
Rothe, a traditional Reservist for more than 17 years, is a third generation Airman. Military service is sort of the family business, beginning with his great uncle (a World War II B-17 bomber pilot) and his grandad, who was also an Airman during the Korean War. In addition, his dad is a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel, his brother flew the C-130 Hercules for the Air Force, and seven of his cousins are Airmen. One cousin broke ranks and joined the Army. While family tradition may have influenced Rothe’s career decisions, his most powerful personal and professional mentor has been his dad.
Recently promoted to lieutenant colonel, Rothe served as a C-130 pilot assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, where his father also flew the Hercules. After a dozen years with the 302nd that included multiple deployments flying global humanitarian, troop transport and human remains transport missions in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Qatar and Afghanistan, Rothe transferred to the 70th FTS and became a soaring instructor pilot. His dad is a former 70th soaring instructor, as well! The Reserve Citizen Airman is also a pilot for a commercial airline, and it happens to be the same airline for which his dad flies.
Rothe’s passion for flight was ignited early, and at 15 he was already flying gliders. He’s not even the youngest member of his family to fly. His 9- and 6-year-old sons have already flown gliders and look forward to starting flight training one day.
Being a USAFA soaring instructor is more than guiding students through basic aviation skills. In the hush of engineless flight, soaring provides him with a unique opportunity to learn more about his students, and an avenue for them to learn more about themselves.
“It’s so much fun to show the Cadets how this all works, and if we’re not having fun, we’re doing it wrong. When we work with the Cadets it’s not all about flying. We learn about them, their families and their goals after the Academy – it is a unique and rewarding situation," he said. “When we’re soaring, we’re not just training aviators. We’re developing leaders.”
Like other Reserve aviators, Rothe offers the Air Force invaluable experience and knowledge earned through years of practice. “It takes a few months to get basic certifications to teach soaring, but it takes years to gain needed experience in the advanced soaring programs like the Academy’s Cross Country and Aerobatic Teams. A lot of our Active Duty counterparts are only on station for 3 or four years. Reservists are able to help keep the continuity in these programs through personnel changes.”
While regular and Reserve members bring their own unique skills to the table, Academy students can’t tell the difference between their RegAF and Reserve instructors.
“Total force integration at the airfield is so seamless that many cadets don’t realize I’m a Reservist. I think it’s important for them to understand how TFI works, and to recognize the options they have when making future career decisions,” he said.
The husband and father of four was grateful for those options when it came time for him to make life and career decisions. As a Citizen Airman, he is better able to balance his personal and professional life. That makes all the difference in his world, and provides him with the flexibility to make a difference in others’ lives, as well.
Already completely captivated by soaring, Rothe’s passion for the sport deepened when he witnessed the powerful impact soaring could have on America’s Wounded Warriors. Rothe helped found the Soaring Eagle Foundation with his father, a non-profit organization that uses glider flights to “lift up those who served,” i.e., helping wounded warriors recover from mental, physical and emotional trauma (www.soaringeaglefoundationusa.org).
“There’s a magical feel to soaring,” he said. “The excitement of flying, the incredible view, the unexpected quiet, and the knowledge that it’s just you in an aircraft held aloft by the air currents there’s nothing like it, and our wounded warriors love to experience that. We love to share that experience with those who gave so much to our country.”
Whether teaching Academy cadets to glide, or teaching wounded warriors to soar, flying is Rothe’s passion, and he's grateful that he can change cadet and wounded warriors’ lives in a way that feels like he has never really worked a day in his life.