A Rare Air

Phoebe Brown aims high to achieve her dream of becoming one of the youngest female hot air balloon pilots

By Tristan Scott
Phoebe Brown flies a hot air balloon with Kevin Flanagan, owner of 2FlyUs Hot Air Balloon Rides, on Aug. 9, 2015. For more photos visit www.flatheadbeacon.com. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Earthbound onlookers have probably spotted Phoebe Brown chasing her dreams through the skies of northwest Montana, pursuing her lofty goals in an inverted teardrop of spectral colors, a dazzling array floating high above the horizon.

Although it’s hard to see from below, she’s smiling. She’s always smiling in the balloon.

“It’s the most peaceful, calming experience that I have ever had in my life and I think that is why I love it so much,” Brown said of hot air ballooning. “It just brings me so much joy and I want to be able to give that joy to others.”

She’s well on her way.

Less than a month ago, Brown, 26, loaded up her car in northern California and set out for Kalispell, where she’s training to become a hot air balloon pilot under the auspices of instructor Kevin Flanagan, one of the most experienced pilots in the world. Flanagan moved his Phoenix-based ballooning business to the Flathead Valley this summer, and he’s offering passenger flights seven days a week through September while also instructing Brown.

Of the 50 students he’s trained, only four were women.

“There just aren’t very many female pilots in the industry, so it’s cool to see not just a female pilot but a young person so caught up in the magic of flying,” Flanagan said. “It’s really weird how rare it is because to fly a balloon requires finesse and creativity more than the strength associated with other male-dominated sports.”

Brown’s interest in ballooning was ignited while living in Australia, where her landlord was a hot air balloon pilot. When he needed weight to fill out the gondola, or basket, he’d invite Brown and her roommates.

Despite a fear of heights, Brown said any trepidation disappears when she’s in a balloon enjoying the quiet bliss of high altitudes.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I knew it’s what I wanted to do, so I came up with a plan.”

Back in California, she found work for a hot air balloon company in Napa and connected with Flanagan through the network of balloonists she met. To raise money for the expensive process of becoming a pilot, she launched a crowd funding account through GoFundMe and soon had enough money to begin her training.

And that’s how she landed in Kalispell, working a construction gig five days a week with a crew of men while flying on the weekends to join a rarefied world of female balloonists.

For Brown, the allure of hot air ballooning is a combination of the intrepid spirit of discovery and adventure, the serenity of flying in a lighter-than-air aircraft and the joy of introducing the experience to others.

“It’s just really rewarding and exciting,” she said. “You don’t know where you are going to land, and if you’re taking passengers usually it’s for a birthday, or a bucket list item, or a marriage proposal, so everyone is amped.”

In October, she’ll head to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the biggest balloon event in the world, billed as a place “where dreams take flight.”

The motto couldn’t be more fitting for Brown, who remains undeterred by the challenges ahead.

When she earns her commercial pilot’s license through the Federal Aviation Administration, the same as a license to pilot an airplane, she’ll seek out corporate sponsorship from an outdoor apparel company that appeals to women.

“Something outdoorsy, but lady-like,” she said.

But for the moment, Brown is enjoying the Montana summer, and feels closer to achieving her dreams than ever while soaring high into the sky or dipping down low in the Flathead Valley, skimming the Flathead River so close that she can see fish swim beneath the basket and so high that the peaks of Glacier National Park are at eye level.

She loves that ballooning involves steering with the wind, and on a recent sunrise flight from Kalispell she wound up landing in Whitefish (a ground crew follows the balloon for logistic purposes, as well as to ask permission from landowners when the balloon lands in a private field).

Flanagan plans on returning to the Flathead Valley every summer to offer passenger rides through his company 2FlyUs, in part because he’s struck by the friendly nature of local residents, a welcome departure from “the hustle and bustle of Phoenix.”

When he and Brown land a balloon, folks pull over on the road and children come running up to help them stow the 133,000 cubic-foot balloon (imagine 133,000 basketballs), which upon deflation is reduced from an eight-story building to a duffle-bag sized bundle.

“We’ve met some wonderful down-to-earth people here who get really excited about the balloons,” Flanagan said.

To support Phoebe’s hot air balloon dream, visit http://www.gofundme.com/helpflyphoebe.

For more information on 2FlyUs, visit www.PhoenixBalloonFlights.com/Montana.

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