Soaring isn’t so much a living as a way of being for ℹ️Chilhowee Gliderport owner and competitive sailplane pilot Sarah Kelly Arnold. From the time she was 13, the newly inducted member of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame was swapping time worked on a friend’s farm for time in a plane.
“Four hours of work for one hour flying was the deal,” Arnold, 37, said. Growing up on a Seventh-day Adventist communal farm in British Columbia, Canada, she couldn’t just sign up for lessons, however. A family friend she affectionately calls Uncle Leroy owned a plane and took her up. “I was on cloud nine for a week,” said Arnold of her first trip. “I would go down and help in Uncle Leroy and (his wife) Aunt Marilyn’s garden, and he was going to pay me something, but I told him I’d really rather trade it for some flying.”
To get her formal license, Arnold, who earlier this year won the a silver medal in the Czech Republic in the FAI Women’s World Gliding Championships —the first for team USA since 1987, had to wait and take formal lessons paid for through years of working at a local bakery with her mother. “Child labor, I don’t know, I was happy for it. I was living at home because I started when I was 10, so I could save all of my money,” she said. By the time she was 16 she had enough saved for lessons and on her 17th birthday received her license, the earliest age allowed.
Classical piano, which she practiced four hours a day, consumed the rest of her high school years. “I really enjoyed the order and the artistic side of it,” she said. “You have the analytical, mathematical, very ordered and structured part, but there is also a lot of art. Music is one of those things—as is soaring—that bring the two together.”
After completing her secondary schooling through correspondence classes and earning her GED she moved to Portland to advance her formal flight and mechanical training for what she thought would be a career as a missionary pilot overseas. But it didn’t work out that way. She married at 19, and her husband at the time “didn’t have the same goals,” she said.
She has no regrets, though. “I think the fact that I wanted to do that shows that I’m not necessarily the person that wants to go down the traditional path…I want to have a little more meaning and adventure. And I’ve never been stuck in the traditional requirements of health insurance and stability and retirement—all those things that typically make people go down more traditional routes,” she said. “It’s served me well and put me in a place where I was willing to take on the Gliderport because it’s not a lucrative way to live, but it’s something I love and I’m consumed by the mission of it.”
Ironically, it was another mission that brought her and her former husband to Tennessee, however. With her husband not willing to work overseas, the two compromised by moving cross country in 2001 to work at an Adventist children’s home for troubled teenagers. The home needed help in the accounting department, so she taught herself how to do it. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting on-the-job training for running a business,” she said. “I mean, accounting for a nonprofit—that was perfect! And I was with troubled teenage boys, which is not that different from pilots,” she joked.
In 2002 she found the Gliderport in Benton, Tennessee—about two hours north of Chattanooga—through a fellow pilot and started taking lessons. The fact that she knew how to fly a plane known as a taildragger and had a commercial rating made her a perfect fit to tow sailplanes aloft. She enjoyed it so much that she towed planes for a year and decided in 2004 to take up the offer to buy Chilhowee Gliderport in 2004 at 24, making her the youngest gliderport operator in the country.
Happily remarried since 2010 to Jason Arnold, a former student, she has poured her life into teaching, towing and taking the general public for rides over the ℹ️Cherokee National Forest, territory she considers some of the most beautiful in the world. One of her main goals is preserving grassroots aviation for generations to come, she said.
“This is unique and special that we have this grass runway here where members of the public can drive in and sign up for a ride and go flying and bring their children….You think of the romantic era. Nowadays aviation can seem sterile and far away for most people,” she said. “This is very accessible.”
Plus, it’s very personally rewarding. “From the air you totally get a different perspective. The ability to look on life from a distance makes problems that seem like such a big deal on the ground seem like nothing from that far off,” she said. “And the sights you see—the sunrises, the sunsets, the clouds and the national parks. It’s beautiful.”
While she may already be a member of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame as of October, she says she was “kind of flabbergasted” by the honor, because “I feel like I’m just getting started and have so much to do still.” One of the reasons is that soaring can seem impossible to perfect even after years practicing. “Some people say it’s unmasterable,” she said. “The challenge is always real and different.”
This December she heads to Argentina for the second FAI Pan-American Gliding Championship and is aiming for gold after her aforementioned silver earlier this year. She hosted the first Pan-American competition here in 2015, but she couldn’t compete as she managed the race.
Long term, she wants to “make sure that the Gliderport stays here. I know that we are all just finite—I’ve seen it happen that when you die your dream dies, so I want to make it so Chilhowee can last so that it’s a place for future generations to come and soar and see the Cherokee National Forest.”
Interested in taking a ride or lessons?
Visit chilhowee.com or call 423.338.2000
Photography by Jim Caldwell