Maneuvering a hot air balloon is no simple task. And while Kimberly Whiteman pilots balloons for a living, she's also hoping to win the Women's World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Australia.

She is one of Team USA's four female pilots who will compete against 31 other women from 13 different countries in September.

"It's not everyone's personality to be able to just do that — you know, something like ballooning," said Michelle Taylor, Whiteman's sister. "It's not something that's a typical career, right? When you think of careers in your life, like, 'Oh, I'll be a teacher or a nurse' … so, hot air balloon pilot is just one of those things that just seems so mysterious."

Whiteman began competing after her grandfather died and a generous gift from him allowed her to receive her first balloon, Taylor said. Her sister later decorated it with army motifs to honor their grandfather, who was a Korean War veteran. She also dedicated her balloon and flights to her mother after she died a few years before, Taylor added.

"The balloon is, kind of, you know, obviously a thank you to grandpa, but also just a respected memorial to them," Taylor said.

Even though Whiteman has competed for only a few years, she's flown in hot air balloons almost her entire life. Since a young age, she's always loved balloons, but her life changed when she rode a hot air balloon for the first time at age 12, she said.

Since her first flight, Whiteman said she committed to flying hot air balloons and began volunteering for any hot air balloon crew she could find and, eventually, in 2004, she obtained a pilot's license.

In 2010, she obtained a commercial license and began working for Park City's Morning Star ballooning company, where she would commute from California to give commercial flight tours in Park City and Kamas. After a few years, she moved to Kamas, permanently.

The flights are difficult, Whiteman noted, especially as the smoothness of each flight depends on the landscape and weather conditions. Despite the difficulty, she still loves the sport.

"Each flight is different, and so each day is a challenge on where to fly, and I get to meet new places," she said, adding that she also loves "just the peacefulness of it, you know, just floating along."

A group of hot air balloons fly over a lake at the Women's National Competition in Jackson, Missouri, in July.
A group of hot air balloons fly over a lake at the Women's National Competition in Jackson, Missouri, in July. | Kimberly Whiteman

Taylor added that she feels it's incredible for her sister to be "able to take that passion and turn it into a career — and not only that, but have fun doing it every single day."

After decades of flying, Whiteman decided to start competing, beginning small, with local competitions in Reno, Nevada.

Whiteman then decided to compete nationally after she received her own balloon, despite having only competed for a few years. In August 2021, just a few days after getting her own balloon, she participated in her first national championship.

"I'm representing Team USA, which is, I mean, the closest I'll ever get to competing in the Olympics," Whiteman said, adding that she's also especially excited to meet other balloonists at the upcoming event in Northam, Western Australia.

The pilot added that while there were four women pilots already chosen for Team USA, she was a standby pilot — and, after one of the pilots backed out of the competition, Whiteman stepped up to compete in the championship.

Competing in the Women's National Hot Air Balloon Championship in July, Whiteman said, was like practice for competing in the world championship, where it will be as much about focus as it will be about speed.

Each pilot will be given a series of targets, where the fliers will then have to drive their balloon to each target, getting them as low as possible without touching the ground.

A target on a field in Jackson, Missouri, during the Women's National Hot Air Balloon Championship in July.
A target on a field in Jackson, Missouri, during the Women's National Hot Air Balloon Championship in July. | Kimberly Whiteman

To track the pilot's progress, each will have a tracking system connected to their balloon, where they can put in the coordinates of each target. Judges will track how low or high each balloon is getting, how fast each one is and how close to the target each balloon gets.

Despite having the right skills and plenty of practice for the competition, Whiteman and her sister said they are struggling to fund the air freight cost for the balloon. The shipment of the basket and balloon is up to $6,000, and Whiteman's roundtrip ticket to Australia will cost an additional $2,500.

"We're scrambling and trying to get things together for that because, you know, everybody else had several months; I'm only like a couple of months in that to get this together," Whiteman said.

To raise funds for her sister, Taylor arranged a GoFundMe* page, which has already raised $2,525. Whiteman also has worked on selling homemade T-shirts promoting the competition. The pilot plans on combining her funds with the other three national competitors, and the four will then ship their balloons to Australia together.

Kimberly Whiteman, of Kamas, operates her hot air balloon during the Women's National Championship in Jackson, Missouri, in July.
Kimberly Whiteman, of Kamas, operates her hot air balloon during the Women's National Championship in Jackson, Missouri, in July. | Kimberly Whiteman

"It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her, so that's why I'm very passionate about trying to raise these funds," Taylor said.

Whiteman noted that while the costs for travel are high — and while she's a little nervous about the competition itself — she's committed to raising the money and traveling to Australia.

"It's gonna be a little challenging and I'm pretty new at it, but I realized like just take one task at a time," Whiteman said.