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Pilot works Havasu Balloon Fest toward owning her own balloon

January 20, 2018 GMT

Thousands of feet above the earth, a Napa Valley woman finds joy in the quiet solace of the sky. The world seems simpler from above, more peaceful. It’s hard to imagine she belongs anywhere else.

Phoebe Brown arrived in Havasu this weekend for the 8th annual Lake Havasu Balloon Festival. A new face in a crowd of experienced veterans, the 28-year-old California native says she’s something of a rarity in the male-dominated field of balloon piloting. Brown is a crew member for balloon pilot Kevin Flanagan, and is saving enough money to one day fly her own balloon over Havasu’s shores.

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“Lake Havasu City’s Balloon Festival is a sought-after event for balloonists throughout the U.S.,” Brown said. “I love being around them.”

Brown first experienced the thrill of flight while living in Mareeba, Australia, when her landlord invited Brown and her roommate on a short ride. Brown remembers being hesitant to go, due to a fear of heights, even as she stepped into the gondola of her first balloon. When the balloon climbed upward, her fears grew as distant as the ground beneath them. Ballooning, she said, became a passion for her.

“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Brown said. “After that first flight, I fell in love…it’s kind of unexplainable. When I take people up, I love seeing their faces light up, and to share that experience with them.”

After that first flight, Brown said, she immediately asked her landlord how she might go about getting a pilot’s license of her own. When Brown returned to California, she knew that whatever the future held, balloons would be a part of it.

She found work with a hot air balloon company in Napa Valley as a social media coordinator, and there befriended commercial balloon pilot Chelle Hughes – the only woman to pilot a hot air balloon at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Kenya.

“She was one of the first people to really push me, and tell me to keep going for it,” Brown said.

Brown sought out professional training under Phoenix balloon pilot Kevin Flanagan, who offers pilots training in Montana every summer.

“She first contacted me by phone,” Flanagan said. “It was a funny phone call. She asked me how much lessons were, how much it would cost to get her license. I told her it cost about $5,000 to get a private license, and another $5,000 to get a commercial license. She told me, ’I don’t have the money yet, but I’ll get it.”

Flanagan didn’t expect to hear from Brown again, but the cost didn’t deter her. Brown began a crowdfunding campaign in 2015, where she raised money needed to pursue her professional pilots license. She worked five days each week for a construction company in Kalispell, Montana, and spent her weekends in the skies above.

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“She was a delight to have around,” Flanagan said. “She has passion, enthusiasm, and she’s definitely motivated to be a balloon pilot. It’s rare to meet people who have that kind of passion and drive…she’s a pretty impressive lady.”

Brown is working with Flanagan as a member of his crew, under a balloon sponsored by real estate company, Re/Max.

“I’ve been to quite a few events, traveling across the U.S. and working for pilots so that I can buy my own equipment,” Brown said. “Last summer, I traveled through 29 states in more than three months. I hope that next year, I save enough money to have my own balloon, and start up my own little balloon company.”

While Friday offered a false start for balloon enthusiasts in Lake Havasu City, Brown can be seen alongside the Re/Max balloon throughout this weekend.