REACHING THE SKY, A HOT AIR BALLOON PILOT
By: Krysta Kearney
“When I’m passionate about something and there’s something I want to do I put my full energy towards it.”
Before she could even talk, actually, even walk, McKenna Secrist knew she wanted to be a balloonist. Each night, about an hour before sunset she and her family would watch over the valley, in awe of hot air balloons flying in the distance. She recalls being mesmerized, smiling as big as could be, she looked forward to the views every day. Hopping in a vehicle, they would chase the balloons and watch them land. That same lust and love for balloons has never gone away and her childhood dreams of one day becoming a pilot have come true. She is now one of the youngest hot air balloon pilots in history and definitely one of the youngest of the few female pilots. Flying is her destiny, her calling.
“It’s weird to think how before I could talk I was in love with balloons, like that’s so bizarre to me. I feel like I was meant to fly balloons in a way.”
Air balloonists are far and few. In recent years the sport has dramatically decreased in numbers. It’s a very unique hobby to have, let alone profession. As Secrist grew, her wonderment of balloons only became stronger. Her hometown of Bothell, Washington (just outside of Seattle) had their own local ride company and since Secrist was so infatuated with them, her parents took it upon themselves to get involved.
“My parents don’t fly balloons, I kinda dragged my parents into it. My dad, he doesn’t want to be a pilot or anything but he’ll come chase the balloons with me or he will be in my chase vehicle when I’m flying but the rest of my family isn’t that interested in flying.”
At just nine years old she started crewing at local events, learning how to set up, pack and begin to understand all the in’s and out’s of ballooning. She continued to stick with it, loved it, and had great support from her parents. At fourteen she started pilot training, then began flying solo at fifteen. From there, she got her pilot's certificate on her sixteenth birthday. It’s the youngest age you can be to obtain one! At just sixteen she was flying hot air balloons, before she even had her vehicle license. From there, when she turned eighteen she went all the way and got her commercial license! That way she could fly professionally, hosting commercial flights.
“It’s been a lot of fun. There’s not a lot of young people ballooning so it’s been really cool. There’s a few balloon camps for teenagers so I was able to go to those and now I get to go back and teach other young kids how to fly.”
Now, at 21 years old she has been professionally flying for a company called Seattle Ballooning for four years. They fly fairly large balloons which host between two to eight passengers, leading them on expeditions around Mt. Rainier. They are located in Enumclaw, which is southeast of Seattle. Eliav, the owner of Seattle Ballooning met Secrist at a festival in 2016 and instantly saw the drive and potential in her. They became friends and started flying with each other, which led to him helping train her for her commercial license. In 2018, she became an employee of Seattle Ballooning and she has been working there ever since. Eliav has been a huge mentor for her.
“She really is an icon for youth, and upcoming youth in ballooning.” - Eliav Cohen (King 5 News NBC)
Seattle Ballooning has their own training program where they encourage young enthusiasts. Currently, they are training two seventeen year olds, to become pilots for the company. In addition to promoting the sport to the younger generation, they advocate an inclusive work culture, recognizing that traditionally ballooning has been dominated by white males. They value equity and recognize the need for this change, to better the future of the sport and have hopes for ballooning to be rooted in more cultures.
“It’s about being inclusive, whoever is interested in it and wants to fly should be able to. I'm really happy to be able to spread the word about ballooning and promote it to younger people.”
Amazon Prime supports the training program and provides them with a balloon. The sponsorship has enabled Seattle Ballooning to train even more students. The financial support has been very helpful. Training is Secrist’s favorite part of the job. Although she still likes passenger flights, it’s fun for her to teach and she loves sharing her own passion with others, enjoys seeing people get excited about it and wants to be an influence, just like her own mentors have done so for her.
“I want to continue with balloon training but I also want to be a CFI, which is training people how to pilot planes, I would love to do that.”
Secrist has set forth on another journey and is reaching new heights. Although she plans to always fly balloons, she is aiming for some even bigger goals. Her new venture is in flying airplanes! In July of 2021, she became an aviation student. Her plans are to fly for commercial airlines, as she sees the benefits that it brings, and how stable of a job it can be. That doesn’t mean she plans to put the balloon away, she hopes that by becoming an airline pilot, ballooning will become more of a hobby, so that it will never get old, that it will always be fun. She will continue to train and promote the sport, but mainly pilot them for the joy and wonderment they give.
“I still will be a balloonist the rest of my life but I don't want to fly passengers because I don’t want to get burnt out on ballooning. I'd rather just make flying balloons for fun and flying planes a career.”
Her whole life she has been a dedicated student. She went from going to college and getting her bachelors degree, to the next month starting her pilot's license. If you know Secrist, this seems about right. In highschool she participated in a Running Start program, where highschool students go to college starting their junior year. The first two years she went to a local community college, then she moved on to finish her degree at EWM, (Eastern Washington University) where her major was in business management. Throughout college, every summer she would return to work at Seattle Ballooning. Once she graduated she decided she would move to the area full time, to pursue her career in ballooning as well as go to flight school for her fixed wing certificate. So once she graduated, this past summer, in June of 2021, immediately thereafter, at the end of July she started flying planes. Her goal is to have her certificate to fly by the spring of 2022.
“If you are passionate about something and motivated, you’re willing to put in the effort and the training it takes. Especially with flying planes, there’s a lot to learn but I'm motivated to put in the time it takes to make those goals.”
Her whole life she has been ballooning, it’s what she knows. She feels like she was born to do it. There was one point before she got her pilot’s certificate that she did question if she wanted to continue, it’s all she has done her whole life, but was there something else out there for her? Was she sure?
“I’m really glad I went for it because I couldn’t be happier. It’s really cool, I've never seen another community where everyone is so passionate and always willing to help. “It’s really tight knit. Because there’s not a lot of young people in ballooning, everyone is extremely supportive of new people coming up. I can travel anywhere and know all the pilots in the area and everyone is willing to help each other and support each other.”
Not only is the average age of a balloon pilot 71 (yes, I said 71, according to Eliav), there also just aren’t that many people flying anymore. In Washington, there are only 10 - 15 pilots that fly commercially, in the whole state. Secrist says there used to be a lot more, the amount of balloonists have decreased. Where she flies now, there used to be 20 - 30 balloons on the weekends and now there are just 2 - 3, most of the time it’s just Seattle Ballooning.
“There was a big revolution, ballooning really grew in the 70’s and 80’s. A lot of pilots that were young back then grew out of it, or retired, so I don’t know, there’s just not a lot of people in ballooning compared to how it used to be.”
Not only has the community helped her with ballooning, they have with all aspects of her life and she wants to show that to others. When she was younger she was extremely shy and reserved. As she worked for her ballooning pilot's certificate it forced her to get out of her shell and build up confidence. Quickly, she had no choice, she had to mature and learn how to be in control of her own aircraft. She learned to gain confidence in herself and exude it, proving her knowledge and her worth.
“When you are flying, you have 4 - 5 crew people, and they are usually a lot older than me. I basically had to learn how to tell adults what to do as a thirteen year old, which was really tough at first! I had to build up the confidence in myself to be in charge of an aircraft, in charge of these people and to fly an aircraft successfully and safely. So it really helped to build up my self confidence and made me able to be in charge.”
There’s days where it’s really hard, she always has to have her A game on. All summer, they fly every day, once at sunrise and again at sunset. Each flight is a four hour process, it’s a lot of work but definitely worth it. Between flights they typically all take naps, then sleep just a couple hours at night. It’s all she does, literally, all summer long. They do sometimes get weather breaks and have a few days off here and there but for the most part, the flying season is from May through September, and that’s all she does. She’s completely devoted to flying. This past season was even more strenuous for her since she started flight school. Instead of her usual midday resting time, she would go to school.
“I started my fixed wing training this summer for planes and there were a few days where I flew every morning and night in the balloon and then during the day I did a training flight in the plane, that was SO exhausting, I was in the air all day.”
Life and ballooning has not always been easy for Secrist. She can’t say enough good things about the community and the gratitude it has shown her, but she has had her tribulations. I mean, put yourself in her shoes, as a young girl at the age of nine, getting involved in the sport, people would look at her a bit different, sometimes even doubt her. In school, she was the girl who loved balloons, most of her peers just didn’t understand why she did what she did and would say things like, ‘That’s Weird, that girl is obsessed with hot air balloons?!’ They just didn’t really get it. Kids didn’t necessarily make fun of her, she didn’t get bullied because of it but it made it hard to find friends outside the balloon world, it was hard for her to relate. Most of the negativity she has experienced has been since she was 18, when she got her commercial license.
“I will have passengers who see a young girl and say, ‘Are you my pilot, are you going to be able to take me up, do you really know what you are doing?”
Even now at 21, typically the first questions passengers ask her is, ‘How long have you been flying,’ and ‘How old are you?!’. People are always skeptical but she says it’s about having the confidence and proving herself to them. She keeps her head up, and does her job. This past season she had an all female crew, which made even more people skeptical. Men would try to help them set up the balloon and question their motives, their professional decisions. She understands they had good intentions but in the future she hopes to see a switch, with more young women getting involved.
“People don’t think we can do it for some reason. I feel like people aren’t crazy judgemental, people aren’t how they used to be, (like that women shouldn’t be flying or anything) but people do get skeptical because I’m a young female.”
She has an introductory statement she tells passengers that validates her credentials. Everything that she does, says, every movement that she makes is with integrity. There is a certain level of confidence she needs to uphold and she knows that she can’t slip at any moment, whereas people naturally trust her male counterparts. They are a bit older, masculine, people seem to naturally trust them because of their age and stature, not questioning their values, their credentials, and skills. There is a lot more pressure, bigger expectations that she needs to live up to, especially in front of passengers. Since she started going to aviation school she has experienced negative criticism as well but hearing this, hearing the negative talk from others just makes her want to do it even more, to show her worth, to stand up!
“I feel like a lot of the time when people are like you can’t do it and people are being discouraging towards me, it kind of motivates me to want to do it more, to do it better, because I want to prove them wrong.”
Secrist is a woman with a mission, a #fearlessfemale on the rise. With well over a decade of experience under her belt already, at the young age of 21, we can’t imagine the influence she will continue to have on ballooning and the aviation world. It’s so impressive that she continues to follow her dreams and defy all odds. By constantly looking outside of the box and being true to herself, she is paving the way for people of all ages, especially the youth to recognize all that ballooning has to offer. Don’t forget to look up, overhead you may see some hot air balloons! Secrist now continues to travel on the weekends across the country to various balloon shows. Has Secrist inspired you? If so, get online and look for your local chapter, the community is always hoping to see more of an interest in this unique sport. As for Secrist, check out the links below to learn more about what she does and follow her journey.
“Sometimes I'm like this is fake, there is no way this is my life, I feel really grateful.”
Q + A
Q: Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved in ballooning?
“Most balloon pilots, over 90%, are over 60 years old. Everyone is getting older, so we really need younger people to get into ballooning so it keeps growing rather than shrinking, as both a sport and a community. I would just say, if there’s something you are interested in or something you want to do, just go for it, follow your dreams. Anything you want to put in the time to do, that you are motivated to do, you can do it. It’s just putting the initiative to go do it. Anything you put your mind to, you can do it.”
Q: What do you have to say about taking a leap?
“You just got to go do it. Stop talking about it and go do it. Find mentors in your community and people who are successful in the thing you want to do and they can help lead you to your goals.”
Q: Are there any quotes that you resonate with?
“The longer you practice the habit of working towards your dreams the easier the journey will become.”
A good friend of hers, one of her biggest mentors and best friend in ballooning who passed away always said this to her. In times of doubt, he would remind her of her potential.
Q: Are there any females in the industry people should look into?
Joyce Beckwith, AKA Captain Smiles. She is the first black african female pilot and flies huge passenger planes, holding 15 - 20 people. Here is a video link you can view about her, a must watch! https://fb.watch/88qV2JceVN/
She noted plane aviation:
“In the plane industry, I’ve met so many really successful female pilots that are so confident and know what they are doing, it is so inspiring to see people accomplish the things that I want to do and it just motivates and inspires me to want to do it.”
Q: It's important to support women, as the more we support each other the more we empower women. What type of exposure do you hope to create for women?
I hope that more women aren't afraid to follow their dreams and work towards achieving their goals, and that they know they can do anything they set their mind to!
Q: What insight do you have for women in general?
It is important support each other as women and lift each other up so that we can continue to reach our goals, rather than being overly competitive and tearing each other down.
Q: Who is your biggest supporter?
I have so many supporters and I wish I could name all of them! My biggest supporter has always been my dad. Throughout my life he has supported me in whatever dream or goal I'm working towards, and I am so grateful for that!
Follow these links to find out more about what Secrist is up to!
Seattle Ballooning: https://seattleballooning.com
FB BurnerCast: https://www.facebook.com/OfficialBurnerCast/