Joyce Beckwith’s day begins early. By 4:30 a.m. she is awake; an hour later, she is having coffee with her passengers and doing preflight inspections on her hot-air balloon in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. As burners blow three-yard-long flames into the balloon’s envelope, Beckwith mentally maps the course of her flight, which will carry roughly 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 will be the same.”
Beckwith initially wasn’t interested in being a pilot. As an outdoor hobbyist, she cherished regular trips with her balloon pilot husband, but was content to create bespoke travel packages and provide high-end concierge services for clients visiting Kenya and the Masai Mara National Reserve, among other travel destinations.
Encouraged by her father, Beckwith went to train at Airborne Heat Ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for five months. She earned her commercial pilot license in 2018. Today, she works between Amboseli and the Masai Mara National Reserve.
In the three years since she has started flying hot air balloons commercially, Beckwith says she has gained critical experience and understanding of the aircraft, passengers, and team. Beckwith recalls one sunny morning in the Masai Mara, when she had been flying her hot air balloon for about an hour. It was time to land, and she chose a site closest to the champagne bush breakfast picnic setup. Unbeknownst to her, the spot was just 200 meters away from a pride of lions feasting on their kill. She couldn’t take off immediately to avoid startling the lions, so she decided to funnel her fliers into tour vans on the ground.
In addition to her responsibility to her passengers and team, Beckwith says she has another—that of being the first Black woman hot air balloon pilot. She says that God chose her to break that ceiling in aviation. “Hot air ballooning means so much to me; it elevated me to unmeasurable heights. I am an African girl in the sky among billions of Black women in the world,” she says.
Still, Beckwith hopes for change and to see more women join her in the business. “I have been seen as a threat, but mostly I have been praised and guided in the right path,” she says. “I wish I could have more women to exchange views and ideas with.” Someday, she dreams of having an all-women hot air balloon crew.
For now, she cherishes flying between Amboseli and Masai Mara National Reserve, taking in the land from above and, once in awhile, landing the balloon on a school field to the delight of children. “It gives me so much joy to see kids running to see the balloon,” she says. “And I love being in the bush. It gives me so much peace to be out here.”