Hot air balloon pilot Joyce Beckwith makes history

Joyce Beckwith, the first black female hot air balloon pilot, works between Amboseli and the Masai Mara National Reserve.

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Jher story is part of a series on Women in the Air. Read the other two stories here and here.

Joyce Beckwith’s day starts early. At 4:30 a.m., she is awake; an hour later, she is having coffee with her passengers and conducting pre-flight inspections on her hot air balloon in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. As burners blow three-meter-long flames into the balloon’s envelope, Beckwith mentally maps the course of his flight, which will carry around 12 passengers at a time over the 151-square-mile area in southern Kenya. “In ballooning, we learn every day,” she says. “Because the balloon is guided by the wind, no two flights are the same.”

Beckwith was initially uninterested in being a pilot. As an outdoor enthusiast, she treasured regular trips with her hot air balloon pilot husband, but was content to create bespoke travel packages and provide top-notch concierge services to clients visiting Kenya and the reserve. National Masai Mara, among other travel destinations.

Encouraged by her father, Beckwith went to train at Airborne Heat Ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico for five months. She obtained her commercial pilot license in 2018. Today, she works between Amboseli and the Masai Mara National Reserve.

In the three years since she began flying hot air balloons commercially, Beckwith says she has gained essential experience and understanding of the aircraft, the passengers and the crew. Beckwith recalls a sunny morning in the Masai Mara, as she flew her hot air balloon for about an hour. It was time to land, and she chose a site closest to the breakfast picnic set-up in the champagne bush. Unbeknownst to him, the spot was only 200 yards away from a pride of lions feasting on their prey. She couldn’t take off immediately to avoid spooking the lions, so she decided to funnel her fliers into ground tour vans.

Along with her responsibility to her passengers and crew, Beckwith says she has another, that of being the first black female hot air balloon pilot. She says God chose her to break that ceiling in aviation. “Hot air ballooning means so much to me; he raised me to immeasurable heights. I am an African girl in the sky among billions of black women in the world,” she said.

Still, Beckwith hopes for change and will see more women join her in the business. “I was seen as a threat, but mostly I was praised and guided in the right direction,” she says. “I wish I could have more women to exchange views and ideas with.” One day, she dreams of having an all-female hot air balloon crew.

For now, she enjoys flying between Amboseli and the Masai Mara National Reserve, admiring the land from above and, once in a while, landing the balloon on a school field to the delight of the children. “It gives me so much joy to see children running to see the ball,” she said. “And I love being in the bush. It gives me so much peace to be here.

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