Fourth-generation pilot continues family tradition

June 10, 2009

Sarah Sill Sarah Sill soloed a Citabria on May 29, making her a fourth-generation powered airplane pilot.

Sarah Sill turned 16 on May 27, and she celebrated it just as you’d expect for a fourth-generation pilot: She soloed a Citabria.

Sarah is the daughter of Philip Sill II of Duncan, S.C., a first officer with US Airways, and the granddaughter of Phillip Sill Sr. of Orlando, Fla., a U.S. Air Force veteran who got his instrument rating at age 65. Her great-grandfather, the late Doug Sill, was a pilot from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Sarah had planned to start the momentous day at Spartanburg Airport (SPA) by taking her glider checkride and then soloing the Citabria. The weather didn’t cooperate; heavy rains had left the grass runway too wet for glider operations. She’s scheduled try again on June 14.

While not quite the day she’d envisioned, it was still special. Sarah trains mostly at Donaldson Center Airport, in Greenville, but soloed at SPA because her father had soloed there.

After Sarah completed her three takeoffs and landings, her father was on the ramp to congratulate her and cut off her shirt-tail, a rite of passage for student pilots. He could do that because he’s also her flight instructor.

Sarah Sill Phillip Sill, right, does the shirt-cutting honors for his daughter, Sarah, on her solo day.

“He is a little bit harder on me than he probably is with any other student,” Sarah says. “He’s probably a lot harder on me because he wants me to be perfect. I’m a better pilot for it.”

Flying gives Sarah an experience unmatched by anything else, she says. “When I go flying by myself, it’s a feeling of freedom that not many people can understand,” she says. “It’s almost like you have the world at your fingertips. You can look down and see your community. It’s awesome.”

Like many teenagers, Sarah has a full plate of extracurricular activities, including Civil Air Patrol, ROTC, and soccer. How does a busy high school student find time to fly with a flight instructor-father whose airline schedule takes him away from home? It takes some coordination. “We always try to [fly] on the weekends” and also fly after school when possible, Sarah says. When Sill is home, he asks his daughter for her schedule and then requests days off when she is able to fly.

Sarah also credits her mother, Gina Sill—“she’s my main supporter,” Sarah says—and her glider instructor, Dr. Ravenel Smith, with her success. Her father points to an enthusiastic circle of friends that has enabled Sarah to get time in a Super Decathlon and a Stearman, as well as some faster birds, such as a King Air 90, a Dassault Falcon 10, and an L-39 jet trainer.

Sarah sill Sarah Sill and Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Nicole Malachowski (right).

Sarah is poised to take the family tradition to newer and greater heights. She has wanted to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy since she was 12 years old and met Maj. Nicole Malachowski, the first female member of the Thunderbirds demonstration team, at an airshow. “She’s fortunate to have met Nicole, and Nicole’s been an inspiration to her,” her father says. The two have kept in touch, and Malachowski has been a mentor of sorts, providing Sarah with advice on how to stay focused on her goals.

Like Malachowski, Sarah is a member of CAP; she is a first lieutenant in the South Carolina Civil Air Patrol Spartanburg Wing, where she first learned to fly gliders. And, like Malachowski, Sarah is in ROTC—a senior master sergeant in her high school squadron, where she was named outstanding cadet. “I have military in my roots,” she says with pride, noting that both grandfathers served in the armed forces.

Her grandfather is happy to see Sarah carry on the family tradition, and notes that she hopes to become a fighter pilot. “I think she is on track,” he says.