What Is It Like to Be a Hot Air Balloon Pilot?


It was inevitable that Beth Wright-Smith would find herself up in the air. A distant relative of the Wright brothers, she was just eight years old when her engineer dad caught the ballooning bug in the 1960s. “He just happened to be driving by and he sees this guy inflating a balloon,” she says. That guy turned out to be Tracy Barnes, a pioneer and legend in the ballooning world. Wright-Smith had her own first flight at the age of 17 and got her pilot certification a few years later.

Now, with 43 years of flying under her belt, Wright-Smith is the owner of Airborne Heat, a flight and ground school for ballooning in Albuquerque. For the past 13 years she traveled around the country piloting “¢ent’r Stage,” a nine-story tall stagecoach-shaped balloon that was put to rest this year. But you can still catch her this October piloting Smokey the Bear at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air ballooning festival in the world.

Beth Wright-Smith talked to us about her career in ballooning, and what you need to know should you want to lift off yourself. As told to Vanita Salisbury.

I’m probably one of the oldest second-generation balloon pilots in the country. I’ve flown internationally in Switzerland, Mexico, and Canada, and at some point I would like to go to France. They have a big event every other year in Lorraine, near where the first balloons launched in 1783. And France is where Sophie Blanchard is from, the very first woman to fly a balloon professionally.

My first ride was actually when I was 17 in 1973 here in Albuquerque, in the first World Balloon Championships. Part of the attraction of going was the ballooning, and part of it was getting out of school for two weeks. It wasn’t the best landing. My dad fell on me, and he was 250 pounds. All I remember was that he squished me.

When I started, the business of hot air ballooning was basically a family thing. The dad was the pilot, the mom was the crew chief, the kids helped with the balloon. There were very, very few women pilots. At the time I got my pilot certificate, there were basically four ladies at balloon events. There’s getting to be more and more women, especially in the past five years. I’d say about 30 percent of those I certify are women.

Wright-Smith previously piloted the Wells Fargo stagecoach, “¢ent’r Stage” | Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Sport

If you want to fly, you can get a private certification or a commercial certification. With a private, you can fly for fun, but if you actually want to get paid to do it, then you have to have a commercial rating and some experience. With Airborne Heat, I have what’s called a Part 141 school. There’s also Part 61 which is generally how most people get their pilot certificates. That’s how I got mine. You can do it in 10 hours for a private [certification] and for commercial you need 35 flight hours.

I also fly corporate programs, which means corporate advertising. I flew the Wells Fargo stagecoach for thirteen years; they just ended the program last year. We’d fly in festivals, if they had a bank opening or a charity thing, we’d put them up wherever they wanted us to. We traveled around the country. It was a lot of fun.

“It’s just everyday people that have decided this is their thing.”

Every single flight is different in some way. My favorite part of flying is going low over trees and rivers and lakes, because you can’t really do that in very many aircraft. One mistake I made in the beginning—and one a lot of new pilots tend to make—is when I got close to the ground I thought we were gonna break our legs or something. It’s not like an airplane. It looks like you’re coming so fast when you’re really not at all. So I’d overburn and go back up, and miss my landing spot.

As a pilot you’re constantly thinking. It’s a major mental exercise. There are so many details. You’re constantly watching what’s happening, where you are, where you can land, where you can’t land, how do you get there, what you have to do to get there. It’s like a 3-D pool game; you have to figure out the angles.

A nighttime balloon glow | Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The job draws an entrepreneurial personality. It takes someone with their own mind, that doesn’t want to go with the flow all the time. That creates problems every once in a while, because some of them aren’t very good at following the rules. Most of ballooning is technique and about ten percent is safety stuff. So you ask six different balloonists how to do something and you’ll get six, maybe ten different answers.

One misconception about ballooning: People think only rich people are in it. And it’s actually the opposite. The cost for a small sport balloon starts at around $35,000. I couldn’t afford a balloon myself in the beginning so I co-owned my first two balloons with partners. It’s not rich people who are doing it, for the most part; it’s just everyday people that have decided this is their thing. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is about 70 people competing, a few corporate flyers like me, and the rest of the 600 or so participants are just doing it for fun.

When I first got to Albuquerque I thought it was the ugliest place on the planet. I’m from Minnesota where there’s trees and grass and water. Albuquerque’s the desert. I came in February and everything was brown—the trees were brown, the ground was brown, even the houses were brown. Until I flew, and it was incredibly amazing. We don’t have the humidity here, so you can see forever. On any given day you can see Mount Taylor, 75 miles away. I always wanted to live near mountains when I was a kid. The mountains to the east of us are a big chunk of rock, but they’re amazing. They’re called the Sandia mountains, which means watermelon. When the sun hits them right, they turn pink.

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