Soaring High: Women Pilots Leading the Charge in Large-Scale Commercial Hot Air Ballooning

Diversity At Seattle Ballooning

As day breaks across America, the horizon becomes a canvas of awe-inspiring spectacle, dotted with giant hot air balloons carrying more than eight passengers each. These floating wonders are piloted by a select group of around 40-50 individuals who’ve made the vast sky their full-time office. Within this niche cohort, six extraordinary women are changing the narrative, defying norms, and soaring to new heights.

Female Commercial Balloon Pilots

Small Number Of Commercial Female Balloon Pilots

Women constitute a mere 7% of all pilots nationwide in the United States. Yet, in the state of Washington, nearly half of the pilots are women, a powerful testament to the transformation taking place in the industry. At the heart of this change is Seattle Ballooning, a company committed to inclusivity and diversity.

Half Of Seattle Ballooning’s Pilots Are Female

Seattle Ballooning takes pride in employing two of the five women in the country who pilot large commercial balloons daily — McKenna Secrist and Amanda Brodbeck. These inspiring women are not just defying gravity; they are also defying the stereotypes that have traditionally hovered over their profession.

Yet, the narrative of women in large-scale commercial hot air ballooning extends beyond Seattle. Across the country, 4 other pioneering women are not just piloting large passenger balloons daily but are also running their own operations.

Female Owned Balloon Tour Operations

Down south in Oregon, Vista Balloon Adventures adds another layer to this evolving narrative. This acclaimed company has two female pilots at its helm who are experts in flying large commercial hot air balloons. Kelly Dorius, the owner and operator, and Kelly Haverkate, a veteran with 15 years of experience, are the driving force behind the company. Their unparalleled expertise and dedication have not only elevated the company’s standing in the industry but have also served as a beacon for aspiring female pilots across the nation.

Remarkably, two commercial hot air balloon companies, one of which is Seattle Ballooning, stand out in the industry by having half of their pilots as women. These are the only two such large balloon companies in the country. Their commitment to gender equality and diversity sets them apart and reinforces the message that the sky truly is the limit, regardless of gender. These companies are not only breaking barriers but are also laying a strong foundation for a future where diversity is the norm in large-scale commercial hot air ballooning.

Margaret Rose Breffeilh is the powerhouse behind Wyoming Balloon Co., seamlessly combining her passion for ballooning with her entrepreneurial spirit. Meanwhile, Brittany Campbell is making waves in Albuquerque, where she owns and operates Fly Albuquerque. Both women navigate the skies and the challenges of managing their businesses, carving out a niche in an industry that has been predominantly male for too long.

In New Jersey, Kelly Hilberth pilots hot air balloons carrying up to four passengers, but her contribution to the industry’s diversification is no less significant. As the owner and operator of her own company, she stands as an inspiring figure for other women seeking to make their mark.

Seattle Ballooning’s Young Aeronauts Program

Seattle Ballooning is not just creating opportunities within its organization; it’s also playing a significant role in fostering new talent. With support from Amazon, it launched the “Young Aeronauts Program,” designed to introduce more young people, particularly women and people of color, to the world of hot air ballooning. Many of these aspiring pilots are set to get their private licenses this summer, marking another step towards diversity in the field.

These five women — McKenna, Amanda, Margaret, Brittany, and Kelly — form a pioneering quintet challenging the status quo. They are proving that the sky is no longer a male stronghold but an arena where women can excel, lead, and inspire. As they ascend toward the sky, they’re lifting the aspirations of countless others with them, showing that in the realm of large-scale commercial hot air ballooning, the only boundaries are the ones we set for ourselves.

Early Women In Ballooning (History) – 1930’s

Jeanette Piccard, known as Jean Piccard, was a woman ahead of her time, carving out her legacy in the male-dominated field of ballooning in the 1930s. A Swiss-born American scientist and a high-altitude balloonist, Piccard broke multiple barriers during her illustrious career. In 1934, she became the first licensed female balloon pilot and astoundingly, the first woman to reach the stratosphere. Ascending to an altitude of nearly 58,000 feet in a balloon, she proved to the world that gender was no obstacle to exploring the upper echelons of the Earth’s atmosphere. Her extraordinary feats during a time when women’s roles were strictly confined made her a role model for generations of women pilots to come, including the ones currently transforming the landscape of large-scale commercial hot air ballooning. Jean Piccard’s pioneering spirit continues to inspire and illuminate the path for countless women in the realm of ballooning.

Female Pilots In The 1960’s

Barbara Keith was a woman of many passions — a skydiver, hot air balloon pilot, and a doting grandmother. Her resilience and determination brought her into an unusual arena — the Catalina Balloon Race in 1964, an event that showcased the thrill of ballooning and also underscored the inherent risks.

Among the eight seasoned balloonists participating in the race were well-known names like Don Piccard and Ed Yost. Barbara Keith was the lone woman entrant. Each balloonist was supported by a chase boat navigating the ocean’s salty expanse below to maintain communication with the balloon crews and record crucial distance and speed data.

The race day presented challenging weather conditions, forcing the balloonists to convene at the ball field, deliberating on whether to proceed. In a testament to her indomitable spirit, Barbara Keith stood her ground, voicing her determination to take off whether others followed suit or not.

Despite her bravery, things took a precarious turn. The chase boat assigned to Barbara’s balloon, the “Melody Joe” under the guidance of Jack Watts, lost contact with the balloon early in the journey due to low cloud cover and unruly sea conditions. As dusk approached, a report surfaced of a balloon descending into the sea around 20 miles off San Onofre, triggering a fervent but ultimately fruitless search as darkness fell. With night setting in, the Coast Guard suspended the search and officially declared Barbara’s balloon missing.

The next morning, as daylight broke, the search resumed. Further sightings eventually led the Coast Guard to the downed balloon. In the capsized gondola, they discovered Barbara Keith, who had succumbed to hypothermia.

Barbara Keith’s life and tragic end served as a stark reminder of the risks associated with such daring pursuits. Yet, her bravery and tenacity, even in the face of daunting circumstances, continue to inspire and reverberate through the ballooning community, particularly among the women who have taken up the torch in large-scale commercial hot air ballooning. In Barbara Keith, they find a spirit of courage and resilience, a testament to the rich legacy of women in the ballooning field.

Hot Air Balloon Pilot Eliav C.
About the Author

Chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning. I get the opportunity to provide luxury hot air balloon rides just South of Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier. When you do what you love, it’s not considered work.

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