May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well, that God joins you in laughter,
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
—The Balloonist’s Prayer
It was still dark out when my alarm went off. I’m not a morning person, but the “bucket list” day ahead of me was motivation enough to get out from my blankets. Autumn had fully arrived in South Dakota, so I layered up, preparing for dawn’s chill. As I drove to our meeting spot, I watched the clear sky slowly blend from magenta to gold with the rising sun. It was a beautiful day for a hot air balloon ride over the Black Hills of South Dakota.
In a parking lot just west of downtown Custer, South Dakota, a group of us met to be briefed for the day’s hot air balloon ride. Keely Mahony, co-owner of Black Hills Balloons with her husband, Damien Mahony, had just released a small, black pilot balloon into the air. Floating up and away from us, this helium-filled balloon helps the crew see which direction, and how fast, the different layers of wind are traveling. Ever-fickle winds can change by height, and are important for the pilots to know for take-off, landing, and general passenger safety.
As we all watched the little balloon climb higher into the gradually blueing sky, Keely chatted with passengers about her history with hot air balloon rides.
“I’ve been flying since I was seven,” she said. “I’ll be forty this month.”
Meet Keely and Damien, Hot Air Balloon Operators in the Black Hills of South Dakota
In 2000, Keely moved to Florida from California to take an internship with SeaWorld. Having grown up ballooning with her mom, she’d had her pilot’s license since the age of 17, and wanted to stay involved with the sport.
“I kind of feel like I was raised at ballooning events, and being surrounded by the same group of wacky pilots,” Keely laughs in an interview with The Dyrt.
After some research, she contacted one of Orlando’s hot air balloon companies and asked if she could help out from time to time. That’s when she met Damien, who was working as ground crew for the company. By 2010, Damien was the chief pilot for Orlando Balloon Rides, and Keely was working with Hard Rock International doing corporate marketing and philanthropy.
“I did that for eight years, and I loved it,” Keely remembers. “But the fast-paced world of Orlando, and the hecticness of the job—I was just ready to do something a little different. And Damien was kind of feeling the same way.”
Keely’s family has a cabin in South Dakota’s Black Hills, so she had been coming to the region for years. She started bringing Damien out each September for a hot air balloon event held in the Stratobowl. The Stratobowl is a natural depression within the Black Hills where the National Geographic Society and United States Army Air Corps sponsored a stratospheric balloon launch site between 1934 and 1935. By 2018, Keely and Damien would be married in the Stratobowl. They’d also be three years into owning their own hot air balloon company.
Damien had fallen in love with the Black Hills almost instantly. So, when an offer came in February 2015 to purchase Black Hills Balloons, Damien moved to South Dakota and was ready to fly by that May. Keely joined shortly after, once she’d tied up loose ends in Orlando.
“We were looking for a different kind of quality of life, pace of life,” Damien explains to The Dyrt. “A bit more control over our own destiny.”
“You mean, from a traditional, glamorous, travel- and celeb-filled job to wearing hiking boots and trying to keep up with a team of boys, running around in wet knee-high grass at sunrise?” Keely jests.
Keely and Damien continue to be excited by the opportunities afforded to them as small business owners. In addition to taking Black Hills visitors out on hot air balloon rides, Keely offers pilot training to students each year. The two of them are also certified through the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct repairs on balloons, and keep busy with these projects throughout the winter months.
“I just love introducing the sport to people,” Keely shares. “I love the passengers. I love helping fulfill bucket lists. I love every second of it.”
Preparing for Take-off
“What do you think?” Keely asked Damien. “Magic Field?”
“Yeah, Magic Field,” Damien concurred.
Based on the pilot balloon’s flight—that was now a speck on the horizon—the crew decided to launch from Magic Field, a natural open field of autumn-browned grass a few miles down a dirt road. When the Black Hills are windy and suitable launching spots are hard to find, Magic Field is always nice and calm, Damien explained. It was clear they knew this land well, and from perspectives rarely seen. We loaded into passenger vans for a 15-minute drive out to the take-off point.
“This is your chance to get some last minutes of napping in!” Damien teased.
Along the drive, we passed wild turkeys, craggy granite boulders, and ponderosa pines. Passengers spoke with one another on the ride, the excitement of the day palpable in their voices.
Jack and Diane Felts were in the area for the first time, having traveled from Jacksonville, Florida, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. A hot air balloon ride had been on Jack’s bucket list, “We planned this a year out,” he shared. “It’s not something you do every day!”
A Bird’s Eye View of the Black Hills
Watching the hot air balloon unfurl across the field under a pink and blue morning, each of the crew members expertly busying themselves with ropes and the basket, is like watching a ballet in slow motion. Interspersed with this deliberate and skilled dance are moments of raucous, violent combustion. This is at the heart of hot air ballooning’s enchantment—the juxtaposition of intensity and grace, the hurricane and the silence, the slow ballet, so completely stirred together.
Damien took the pilot’s seat in the middle of the balloon basket, and Keely situated everyone around him for takeoff, snapping photos for each of the excited passengers on the hot air balloon ride.
The crew released the balloon’s tie-downs, and just like that, we were in motion, being tugged gently upward in a giant wicker basket. That first moment of realizing I was floating was magic. It took a moment for me to get my bearings, but once the initial nerves wore off, I was impressed with how gentle the hot air balloon ride was. It was a slow, gliding, bird’s eye view over the treetops of Black Hills National Forest.
Damien pointed out key features along the way. In the distance, we could make out Crazy Horse Memorial, the famous Cathedral Spires along Needles Highway, and Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. Looking down, we saw the fluffy white tails of deer galloping through the woods. We dipped down into a scenic ravine and then rose back up to travel the forest’s canopy. Being up there was a new kind of quiet, a deep sense of peace.
Damien navigated the landscape with finesse, knowing the exact amount of extra fuel needed to hop over a pine tree with mere inches to spare. He looked for landing spots like an artist designing their canvas, the winds as his brush. When we began our descent into a deserted bison field, I held on tightly, anticipating a bumpy landing, but we touched the ground like a feather falling to the earth.
“I truly enjoyed it, and I get on a ladder and don’t like looking down!” Diane laughed.
“Even Don who didn’t want to come is happy!” Lynn Reffett joined in, who was was visiting from Moline, Illinois to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary with Don. “I would do it again. Everyone should do it at least once!”
How to Plan Your Your Hot Air Balloon Ride in the Black Hills
It’s important to keep an open mind preparing for your first hot air balloon ride. As Damien explained, no two rides are the same, but every route will show you the beauty of the Black Hills.
“Getting to see my first balloon ride again through the eyes of the passengers is such a plus for me,” Damien shares with The Dyrt. “Nothing ever gets boring for me doing this. No two flights are the same.”
Items to note before your hot air balloon ride in the Black Hills:
- Departure location: Within the Custer, South Dakota area. Keely and Damien will determine and communicate the exact departure location the day of your booking, depending on weather conditions.
- Departure time: All flights begin at sunrise, which is the safest and most predictable time of day, as well as a gorgeous hour to take in the Black Hills from the air.
- Flight time: Approximately one hour.
- Best time of year to book: July has the benefit of the most consistent flying weather, but September can be one of the most beautiful months when the aspen trees change color. No matter when you book, Keely and Damien diligently keep in touch with passengers to send out any alerts about cancellations due to weather hazards, and will reschedule, if needed.
- What to bring: The hour ride zips by, and having less is more while sharing a basket with strangers. A camera is really all you need to bring. Leave what you can in the passenger vans.
- What to wear: You’ll be most comfortable in sturdy, closed-toe shoes. The heat from the balloon’s flame is incredibly warming, and many of us found ourselves over-dressed, so a light layer is likely enough. A hat to block the intensity of the heat will also help—increasingly so the taller and balder you are.
- Where to stay: There are plenty of campgrounds and historic lodges available nearby in Custer State Park. Campers will also find good options in Black Hills National Forest.
- For more information and to book your flight: Visit the Black Hills Balloons website.