It's not inaccurate to describe Cherise "Cheri" Morley Rohlfing as an experienced pilot. She certainly is one — she's spent 24 years in Delta Air Lines cockpits, initially as a first officer and as a captain since 2019. But she's also a lot more than that.

She's an adjunct faculty member in the thriving aviation program at her alma mater, Minnesota State University, Mankato; a flight instructor; a 30-plus-year volunteer and director of the Minnesota Aviation Career Education (ACE) camp; wife to fellow Delta captain Andy Rohlfing, and mother to three young adult sons, two of whom are following in their parents' flight path.

"Every day is different," said Rohlfing, 50, of her day job in the sky. "And I really enjoy flying, seeing different cities and working with great people in the aviation industry."

As Rohlfing's career has soared, she's repeatedly raised up those behind her. Her unswerving commitment to mentorship and volunteerism within the state's aviation community is one reason she'll be among the seven inductees — and the only 2024 female — to the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Rohlfing's enthusiasm dates to when she was an Elk River High School student in the early '90s.

"I'm extremely proud of Cheri," said retired Elk River science teacher David Halgren, 88. "She has a story that's quite amazing, going from being a high school junior with no knowledge of aviation at all to making it into the state Aviation Hall of Fame.

"That's not too bad a deal."

Rohlfing earned a bachelor's degree in aviation business management in 1996 and a master's degree in experiential education in 2006, both at Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM).

But her runway to success as a woman in a decidedly male-dominated profession (the Centre for Aviation estimates that only 4.9% of U.S. pilots are female) began much earlier.

"I was an only child who felt very comfortable doing my own thing, and my parents validated my choices and always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do — which is pretty outstanding, especially because my mom is terrified of flying."

She wasn't intimidated by the lack of fellow female aviation students.

"Early on, I noticed I was the only female out at the airport, and in college there'd usually be just a couple of us in [aviation] classes," said Rohlfing.

A fruitful suggestion

Her airborne career tracks its roots to a conversation she had with Halgren. She had enjoyed his chemistry class and sought his advice about how to fill a hole in her schedule. She asked about the aerospace science class he'd originated a few years earlier.

"It's kind of like a ground school for flying," he told her. "You learn about airplanes, use a sectional chart, plot courses, see how a pilot does what they do with an aviation computer and go on a couple pretty good field trips."

Rohlfing said, "Huh; you can get paid to fly airplanes for a living? That sounds fun."

She took the course, and with Halgren's encouragement, she attended the summer ACE camp, which sealed the deal.

"ACE camp made me realize, 'Yep, this is what I want to do,' so I started flight school as a high school senior, became a private pilot a year later and then went to Mankato for college."

Though a certain aptitude for science is a pilot prerequisite, Rohlfing cites other qualities as being key to successful pilots.

"Decisiveness is important because pilots are constantly analyzing what's going on and making decisions based on that information," Rohlfing said. "And you have to be really flexible because in aviation, everything is always in motion and changing all the time — like maintenance delays, weather conditions and staffing issues."

Maintaining an even emotional level also is vital.

"Obviously, safety is the No. 1 priority in our industry," she noted. "And a level of calmness is important for pilots, because it's better to be a more even-keel person who can go with the flow."

A family affair

Rohlfing's eldest son Daniel, 23, is a graduate of MSUM's aviation program and flies for Endeavor Air, a Minnesota-based regional airline. Her middle son, 21-year-old Eric, is wrapping up his aviation degree at MSUM and readily credits his parents for modeling the highest standards in parenthood and piloting. Her youngest, Jacob, is a college freshman.

"Mom was my flight instructor for my private pilot license," said Eric. "She's calm, patient and very understanding. She's a very good teacher. But she can also lay down the law. She knows how to command respect."

Jeff Peterson, an associate professor and chair of the MSUM department of aviation, agreed that Rohlfing consistently displays those traits, not only to her own sons but to all students with whom she interacts.

"Cheri has been the most ardent supporter of our program, and I'm amazed at how much she bends over backwards to help students get through [academically] and enjoy their college life here," said Peterson, mentioning Rohlfing's volunteer leadership of the university's Women in Aviation chapter.

"She has a heart for the students and really wants to see them succeed," Peterson continued. "As a woman pilot, she focuses more on female aviators, but she has supported and been a strong advocate for all students. She's a wonderful help to our program."

Even when Rohlfing's on the ground, she aims high. She took dance lessons from age 3 through college, and on Feb. 10, she summoned that training as a competitor in "Dancing with the Mankato Stars," benefiting the American Red Cross.

Shining in a jazz/tap routine fittingly performed to "Jet Set" from the musical "Catch Me If You Can," Rohlfing and dance partner Matt Atwood, a Mankato realtor, claimed the Grand Champion title.

"I hadn't danced in about 30 years — and it was super fun," she said.

But Rohlfing is most high about passing on her zest for, and knowledge of, flying to future aviators.

"I love watching them succeed," said Rohlfing. "Now, some of my former students are my first officers. That's so cool."

Added Rohlfing's own mentor, Halgren, "I'm so happy to have been a small part of igniting her career, when I think of all the people she's impacted and what aviation has gained because of her.

"Being inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame speaks volumes for what she's done."

Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield writer.