One thousand feet above rolling fields of dew-covered grass and clumps of auburn trees floats a wicker basket attached to a massive, multi-hued balloon. As it listlessly eases its way through the troposphere, the quiet is broken by a sudden roar as a jet of fire tumbles upward toward the 120,000 cubic foot nylon enclosure. The burner cuts off, and the hot air balloon coasts on in peaceful silence.
“It’s kind of my reprieve from life,” said Monticello Country Ballooning owner and pilot Mandy Baskin. “So many of my flights are transcendent.”
The 47-year-old small business owner has been flying since she was a teenager. At 19 she had her first hot air balloon experience and never looked back. She began working for a local balloon company where her job was to “chase” the flight from the road in a follow vehicle and meet them as they came in for a landing.
By age 23, she had undergone the rigorous process to become a certified commercial pilot, which included six written, oral, and flight exams.
“It is expensive and time-consuming and requires a huge amount of dedication and commitment to get a pilot’s license at all,” said Baskin.
With over 3,000 flight hours logged she is now one of two “senior” commercial pilots in the Charlottesville area, both of whom are women. She estimates that there are about 3,000 commercial hot air balloon pilots in the United States, with the vast majority being men.
“Female pilots represent about twenty percent of the balloon pilot population in Virginia,” said Baskin.
As far as flying a hot air balloon goes, a pilot has more control than one might think.
The wind at one altitude may be pushing in a certain direction at a certain speed, while a few hundred feet up it could be headed in an entirely different direction at an entirely different speed. Skilled pilots like Baskin are able to adjust their altitude using burners and in doing so, control the direction that the balloon will go.
“There’s different layers at different altitudes that take them different directions at different speeds,” said Holly Layne, Baskin’s crew chief and friend since kindergarten.
Using this steering technique, pilots “…can set themselves up for landing options.”
When she isn’t tending to her horse and dog boarding business, Snow Hill Layne, she chases for her lifelong friend.
Layne’s duties range from taking pictures of charter guests and helping everyone feel comfortable, to assembling and dismantling the rig, following the flight from the ground, and keeping in constant contact with her friend, the pilot.
“It’s so important to know and trust that person on the ground,” said Baskin, who has built a rapport with Layne over the past 15 years of working together.
The teamwork that Baskin and Layne share in shepherding the balloons for their customers grounds them, even if their work takes them high above it.
“I love what I do, and I love sharing it with people,” said Baskin. “I really love just being outside, being connected to mother nature, being connected to the weather and being connected to sharing that with people.”