A couple of flights in a hot air balloon, and Edgora McEwan “couldn’t think about anything else.” She had to become a pilot.
By Baker Maultsby
“Flying a hot air balloon is like having your favorite coffee—you love it and can’t live without it,” McEwan said.
She’s among a growing number of women taking up ballooning—for recreation or as a professional endeavor—around the globe. They’re drawn to the mix of scientific knowledge, careful preparation and technical expertise required to successfully pilot a balloon and to the opportunity to become pioneers in a sport historically dominated by men.
And they’re of course drawn to the beautiful birds-eye views unique to the experience of traveling by balloon.
McEwan became the first woman licensed as a balloon pilot in Dubai, where she describes flights at sunrise over the desert as “one of the experiences of a lifetime.”
In Malaysia, sisters Atiqah and Izzati Khairudin, pilot balloons over lush green fields and rainforests. They have earned renown as the organizers of MyBalloonFiesta, an annual festival for balloon enthusiasts. Mother-and-daughter pair Lindsay Muir and Chloe Hallett are ballooning luminaries in Great Britain. Muir has placed in numerous World Air Sports Federation competitions since the 1990s and continues to work as a commercial balloonist. At age 17, daughter Chloe became Britain’s youngest female balloon pilot.
As we recall from grade school study of Greek mythology, traveling through the sky has captured the imagination of humans for millennia.
Until the Wright Brothers came along, winged flight was confined to mythological storytelling (and, at that, was the stuff of tragedy). But by the 18th Century, other ideas about how people might be lifted into the air were coming into focus.
It was the Enlightenment, and scientific understanding, along with practical experimentation, were advancing rapidly. Building on the discovery of hydrogen—an element lighter than air—a century earlier, French scientist and inventor Jacque Charles conceived the idea of capturing the gas within a bag that could then float above the ground.
With brothers Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis Robert, who created a fabric to capture and contain the gas, Charles, in 1783, launched the first balloon using hydrogen.
Meanwhile, the Montgolfier Brothers, Joseph-Michel and JacquesÉtienne, discovered that when air is heated, it could give an object lift. The idea of a hot air balloon was born.
In the fall of 1783, following a period of design experimentation and improvement, the brothers put the first human beings into flight. Initial flights were tethered to the ground. The first free flight was launched in Paris and attracted a crowd of 100,000 that reportedly included Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as United States ambassador to France.
Balloon flights were tremendous spectacles, and “balloonomania” swept France and England. One of the most popular up-and-coming balloonists was Jean-Pierre Blanchard. He recruited his wife, Sophie, to become part of his ballooning demonstrations. In 1805, Sophie Blanchard became the first female pilot. She quickly became well-known for her skill and dramatic flair, which included shooting fireworks while in flight. Napoleon and King Louis XVIII were among her admirers.
According to the Smithsonian, Napoleon had Blanchard work on plans for a balloon-based invasion of England—in theory, the world’s first air force. She ultimately determined that such a plan was not realistic. Blanchard was killed in a balloon accident in 1819. She continues to loom large in the history of ballooning and serves as an inspiration to modern-day women pilots.
Air travel these days is routine and precise. Pilots can reliably land airplanes at specific locations, with near-perfect timing, just about anywhere on earth. Flying by plane is efficient and, for many, a necessity. Hot air ballooning is an altogether different experience. For one thing, it’s not the best way to get from Point A to Point B. Depending solely on wind currents, a balloon ride lacks precision, even when piloted by an expert.
As a pilot, “you can only make the balloon up or down,” Atiqah Khairudin explained.
But it’s the uncertainty that appeals to Atiqah.
Skilled balloonists learn wind patterns and the ways they change according to altitude. And they research landscapes and potential obstacles – the Khairudin sisters are careful to avoid airports and areas where power lines are prevalent.
Still, “you can’t know exactly where you will go,” Atiqah said. And that’s part of the thrill—as is the tangible sense of being in the sky. “A balloon is not like any other type of aircraft. There’s no obstruction and no engine sound. It’s just the burner and nature.”
Atiqah and Izzati grew up with ballooning. Their father was a pilot. He started MyBalloonFiesta in the 1990s. After he died unexpectedly in 2012, the sisters took the helm of both the festival and the company their father had founded, AKA Balloon.
They earned their commercial licenses in 2015. During their peak season—roughly June through December—the sisters host flights three to four times a week.
McEwan’s husband, Adam, is owner of Balloon Adventures Dubai. The company was a great resource as McEway pursued her license—but she still had to put in the work. She took her first solo flight in 2018.
“After 16 flights with an instructor, I could fly the balloon on my own,” she said. “My solo flight was one of the best moments I have had. I felt very proud.” McEwan and the Khairudin sisters take their role as women balloon pilots seriously. They enjoy promoting the sport and hope to inspire other women to follow their lead.
Atiqah and Izatti put on demonstrations for schoolchildren and hire college students as interns for the festival.
Through Balloon Adventures Dubai, McEwan is connected to a community of women pilots who provide encouragement and support. She expects to see more young women enter the field, whether professionally or as amateur pilots.
She has high hopes for one aspiring female balloonist in particular. “My daughter wants to become a pilot, too. I’m a very proud mother.
Interested in a hot air balloon adventure in an exotic location?
Consider a trip to Myanmar or Turkey.
Myanmar: Bagan, one of Asia’s historic gems, has become a top destination for ballooning and balloon tours. Seeing the city and surrounding region by balloon offers incredible views. Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, and thousands of Buddhist temples were constructed between the Eleventh and Thirteenth Centuries. The architectural beauty and historical significance of these religious sites are enough to make a tour-by-sky a moving experience. Add in a bird’s-eye look at daily life in the city as well as breathtaking landscapes, and a balloon ride over Bagan promises an unforgettable look at a unique part of the world. Two of the city’s most popular balloon tour companies are Balloons Over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning, both of which receive high marks from online reviewers.
Turkey: The geography of Cappadocia, Turkey has been described as “surreal” and “otherwordly.” Volcanic rock, extraordinary formations created by erosion, ancient religious sites cut into the landscape— all make for perfect sightseeing via balloon. Indeed, Cappadocia is the site of roughly half of the world’s hot air balloon launches. Numerous companies offer tours varying in duration and cost. Whether taking a balloon tour in Turkey or Myanmar—or anywhere else in the world—a few words of advice: Be prepared for an early-morning launch. Dress with climate and altitude in mind but also heat from the flame. Be ready to stand for a long periods of time. Be flexible, as weather can affect launch times. Gear up for bonding with your fellow passengers—balloon baskets make for close company!