March’s Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is a celebration of the women who take to the skies, including those in ballooning. We spoke to RPS client Susan Lindsey of Safford, Arizona-based AZ Air Ventures, who specializes in hot air balloon rides over the Gila Valley, and one of her crew members, Karen Ramirez-Ragland, to discuss the exciting draw of ballooning as more women each year participate in this uplifting sport.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in 2019 there were 960 active female balloon pilots (compared to 5,996 active male pilots). On average between 2014-2018, there have been 13.8 new female balloon pilots each year. In 2020, the Balloon Training Academy helped train 18 new female pilots.
The Chase Is Just as Fun as Piloting
Susan caught the ballooning bug after attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, one of the largest festivals in the world, about 14 years ago.
“I knew I had to find a way to balloon, it was pure magic for me,” she says.
She began crewing for a pilot, which is essential to the sport and an integral part of a successful flight. Pilots rely on their ground crew to physically handle the equipment, drive the chase vehicle to meet the balloon at the landing site, and assist with passenger communication, weather observation, landowner relations, and a variety of other tasks.
“The crew feeds valuable information to the pilot,” says Susan. “For example, as a crew member, you’re looking for power lines for the pilot to avoid when landing, or you’re letting the pilot know the direction of the winds on the ground which could very well be different from what is happening in the air.”
For years, Susan often traveled to Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive from her home) as well as to other locations to crew on weekends before getting her own pilot license: “I just loved being around balloons.”
An Amazing Ride in the Air and in Life
In 2012, Susan’s husband Greg, who had been a private fixed-wing pilot for decades, decided to crew with her after she became ill.
“I didn’t want my illness to take ballooning from me. Greg helped me keep my passion alive while I regained my strength and fully recovered,” she says.
By 2016, he decided to purchase a hot-air balloon and get his balloon commercial license. In the meantime, Susan worked on building her own crew and figuring out everything (including the insurance) needed to operate a balloon company. Karen, a teacher, joined the crew and delighted in the amazing fun that ballooning offers.
“I got addicted immediately and loved it,” Karen says.
Karen shares the joy of ballooning and crewing by live-streaming the rides and teaches others what it takes to crew. The live streams are available on AZ Air Venture’s Facebook page.
AZ Air Venture’s ground crew, comprised of family and friends, is endearingly called the “Ducks,” each with his or her own moniker – from Greg’s “Just Ducky” to Susan’s “Mama Ducky” along with “Stray Ducky,” “Sparkle Ducky,” and many others.
“Ballooning creates this amazing environment that brings people together, builds comradery,” Susan explains.
In 2018, Susan trained for her pilot’s license and received both her private and commercial licenses within a six-month period. Since that time, she has about 200 hours of flying – much more than the average pilot (Greg is at more than 800 hours!).
“We spend a lot of time flying,” she laughs.
Recognizing High-Flying Women
Just in time to celebrate women in ballooning, the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum opens a new exhibit this month called “In Their Words: Stories from Women on the Ground and in the Air.” It includes first-hand accounts of many different women who have been/are pilots, crew members and administrators and have played critical roles in ballooning. An online catalog featuring the biographies of more than 100 women in ballooning will become available at a date still to be determined.
RPS Balloon is the largest hot air balloon insurance broker in the United States.