This April, nearly 30 glider pilots from across North and South America will gather at the Chilhowee Gliderport in Benton, Tennessee, to compete in the first-ever Pan American Gliding Championships. The gliderport, which borders Chilhowee Ridge and the Cherokee National Forest, is a treasure among soaring sites in the Southeast.
Gliders are unpowered aircraft that utilize naturally occurring currents of rising air in the atmosphere to remain airborne. When conditions are favorable, experienced pilots can fly hundreds of miles before returning to their home airfields.
International glider competitions take place throughout the world every other year, while continental competitions have been hosted in Europe during off years. This year’s Pan American Gliding Championships are the first of this kind in North and South America.
The championship in Benton is the work of Sarah Arnold, co-owner of Chilhowee Gliderport with her husband, Jason. Arnold is an award-winning glider pilot who won the Sports Class Nationals in 2011 and became a member of the U.S. Soaring Team. In 2013, she competed in the World Gliding Championships in Argentina and Women’s World Gliding Championships in France (Arnold placed fourth).
“When I went to Argentina to compete, it was such an eye-opening experience, because out of three South American gliding championships, two of the classes were won by Argentine pilots,” Arnold said. “It was proof that hosting competitions could help improve competitiveness for pilots from a particular region. I wanted to be able to help do something like that, so when I got home in 2013, I prepared a bid to host the first Pan American Gliding Championships.”
Arnold grew up in British Columbia and began flying ultralights with a family friend when she was 13 years old. She earned her private pilot’s certificate in 1996 and commercial pilot certificate in 1998. She is an FAA-certified airframe and power plant mechanic who does her own maintenance on towplanes.
Arnold moved to Calhoun, Tennessee, in 2001 and started flying gliders in November 2002. In 2003, she got her glider rating and became a glider instructor.
Since the early 1970s, Chilhowee Gliderport has offered rides, instruction and towing. The gliderport is located along Chilhowee Mountain, which spans from Parksville Lake to Tellico Plains. In 2004, Arnold became owner of Chilhowee Gliderport.
“It’s a nice place for pilots to fly,” Arnold said. “The ridge creates a lift, and it’s a very good place in the eastern sites.”
Of course, competition brings out the best in flying for Arnold.
“The sacred ground for me is when I get to compete,” she said. “I love the aviation, the beauty and the challenge. I never know what Mother Nature will throw at me when I’m up there.”
Practice days for the Pan American Gliding Championships will take place April 3-5, and the competition will run April 6-17. The competition will feature a daily course, and the pilot who gets there the fastest wins.
Although the event is not really set up for spectators, visitors to the area can watch gliders launch during the competition each day at 1 p.m. Gliders will return late in the afternoon.
Chilhowee Gliderport is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting. Reservations can be made by calling 423-338-2000. To learn more, visit the Chilhowee Gliderport website.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about family travel adventures in the southeastern United States, as well as the people and places that make the Southeast unique. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.