Jennifer Rodriguez Rises to the Top and Gives Back to Her Community Along the Way

Soaring ambition.

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  • Written by
    Sara Debevec
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco

Manhattan Beach native Jennifer Rodriguez didn’t always think she would become a pilot—much less a captain for a major airline like Southwest. After graduating from Mira Costa High School, she played volleyball for Hofstra University in New York and planned to become an accountant.  

But in her senior year, she said to her mother, “I don’t think I can sit behind a desk and do accounting my whole life. I want to do something different. I want to be a pilot.” 

Jennifer’s father had worked as an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry. Her mother, an entrepreneur and proponent of going after what you want, fully supported this revelation.

After consulting a family friend who worked for United, Jennifer decided to go to the University of North Dakota for flight school and a degree in aerospace science. She enrolled in what is now called a Pathways Program, which gave her the option to work for a regional airline after graduation. She even inspired her older brother to follow in her footsteps.

“I feel like I won the lottery and still do—15, almost 16 years later.”

“When you’re up in the airplane, it’s just like ‘wow,’” she says. “It’s kind of like playing a video game in the air. The first stall was different; they shut the engine and you get yourself in a stall and it’s kind of freaky, but when you understand the aerodynamics it’s very controllable. It becomes more like second nature.” 

After receiving instruction at Torrance Municipal Airport – Zamperini Field and completing her last training, she flew for Mesa Airlines and finally landed a dream job at Southwest Airlines. “I feel like I won the lottery and still do—15, almost 16 years later,” she shares. “I would say my timing was good because, where I’m at and looking back, I feel blessed.” 

Her most exciting moment at Southwest was in 2015 when she became captain. “I still remember the guy who handed me my wings,” she says. “He happened to call the office the other day, and I said, ‘You gave me my wings. I have a picture of it!’ That was my pinnacle. I wanted to be a captain at Southwest, and I did that.” 

Jennifer has been flying for 27 years and recently was promoted to assistant chief pilot for LAX flight operations. She is married to her loving and supportive husband, Tom, whom she met at Mira Costa. They have two children, Sawyer and Tucker.

Jennifer comes from a giving family involved in the community, churches and schools. With her sister and best friend, Kirsten Dorr, she prepares Lenten dinner for 300 people as part of American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach—a tradition that has been in her family for 25 years. 

When Jennifer was in high school, her mother opened Round Table Pizza. “She had this business for 30 years, but she passed away from cancer and we stepped in,” Jennifer says. “During COVID-19, we decided to shut its doors.”

For 12 years, Jennifer has participated in the Adopt-A-Pilot Program at Wood Elementary School in Torrance. In a job that only 1% of women hold, Jennifer shines as an advocate for strength, tenacity and inclusion. Her advice to women who want to become pilots: “Do it. It’s just that simple. You wanna ride a bike? You go ride a bike. You wanna fly a plane? You go fly a plane. It’s no different than anything else. If you want anything badly enough, you can do it … and find support if you need it.”