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Balloonist Kelli Keller stands with her hot air balloon basket on Sunday, Oct. 2 at Balloon Fiesta Park.

Champion South Dakotan balloonist flies at Balloon Fiesta

Balloonists from all across the nation gather yearly to fly their hot air balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which runs until Sunday, Oct. 9. One such balloonist this year is Kelli Keller — originally from South Dakota and winner of the U.S. Women's National Balloon Championship.

The black hills of South Dakota, where Keller hails from, are home to the Stratobowl: a rectangular limestone canyon that shields balloons from the wind, creating good conditions to launch. The legacy of ballooning in the Stratobowl is strong — this was the location of the first hot air balloon flight by Army Air Corps Capt. Albert W. Stevenson, his second attempt, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

“When I was in high school, I would always go to the Stratobowl with my girlfriends on our way up into the Black Hills, and I would say, ‘Man, wouldn't it be cool to see a balloon fly?’ I actually got to fly out of the Stratobowl in 2018. Dreams have just (come true) I mean, all the time,” Kelli Keller said.

Since watching a balloon fly out of the Stratobowl for the first time, she has become a pilot herself, owned a ballooning business and become a national champion, placing first in the U.S. Women’s National Championship in 2021.

“(Dreams) really (have come true) every step of the way, from watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for the first time to where I am today. This year I got second at the U.S. Women's Nationals —  and in true Kansas City Chiefs fashion, I didn't get the repeat because last year I was the champion,” Kelli Keller said.

Ballooning competitions take place with about two flights per day, in which a pilot must fly to multiple GPS targets, attempting to drop sandbags as close as possible to the marked spot to accumulate points, also testing their ability to fly through the sky on course, according to Kelli Keller and the World Hot Air Ballooning Championship. Sometimes pilots get to pick the locations of the targets they hit after being given multiple to choose from, according to Kelli Keller.

“They call it a hesitation waltz because you really hesitate to decide which one (to hit) … because we're floating with the winds and the only thing we can do is go up or down to catch the direction. And so you can really hesitate on which (one) you want to take at what altitude. It's a constant game of cat and mouse,” Kelli Keller said.

She started coming to the fiesta in 1998 with her and her husband, Tom Keller, coming every year since retirement. Kelli Keller met her husband while ballooning when she taught him how to fly in the late nineties. He himself is a skydiver who has around 900 jumps, so he said his first inclination in a balloon was to jump out. Now they are both pilots.

“I have my way of doing things and she is already doing things but part of (that) is because of different systems. … When we met, I was (at a) skydiving event and she was with the balloons and so it was like an airshow — fly in and they had hot air balloons and skydivers, and so that's how we met,” Tom Keller said.

While seeing a butterfly 4,000 feet above ground was an exciting moment in Kelli Keller’s ballooning career, it doesn’t compare to the people she has met in the profession.

“When I first got into it, I got into it because of the balloon and that's why everyone is out here. But it's my family. I mean, I have friends internationally all over the world here. It takes me 30 minutes to walk from here to the pilot tent because I run into 20 people I know,” Kelli Keller said. “So it's really the people who are the most surprising thing on top of (that).”

Maddie Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at or on Twitter @maddogpukite

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