Raleigh, N.C. — Beth Wright-Smith knows her way around burners, baskets and hot air balloons, having piloted the craft for 38 years.
"My full-time job is ballooning," Wright-Smith, who owns her own flight school in New Mexico, said Thursday.
One of the pilots in the inaugural WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest this weekend – she will serve as the senior pilot for the Wells-Fargo flight team – she is also one of only about a dozen full-time female balloon pilots in the country.
"When you're 9 o'clock going to bed and getting up at 3 a.m., it cuts down on a lot of opportunities if you aren't married to a balloonist like I am," she said.
Then again, Wright-Smith was born into the world of ballooning. Her father is considered a pioneer in the field, and her sister, Barbara McKinley of Chatham County, is a recreational balloon pilot.
"I think it's unique," McKinley said. "I mean it's a unique sport, and then to have several in the same family (in it)."
The family also is distantly related to another pair of flying siblings: Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Wright-Smith said that, while the hours of her job are grueling, the payoff is worth it.
"You get to see some incredible sunrises, and ballooning is just something so different you do in the rest of your life but such an amazing way to start the day," she said.