Marsha Treacy - her career has led her on an interesting journey through hot air ballooning history

Kim McKinney

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Balloon pilot Marsha TreacyPhoto by Kim McKinney

When Marsha Neal Treacy became a hot air balloon pilot in 1984, little did she know the journey it would take her on.

It all began when she saw a hot air balloon flying in her hometown in Michigan. She tried to follow him, but lost him. She stood in the middle of the road and immediately thought to herself “I want to do that.”

A couple of years later she heard they were having a ground school for hot air balloon pilots at the local community college and signed up for that, never having been in a balloon. She started crewing for a local ballooonist afterward. An instructor finally gave her a 15-minute ride. That was all it took. She was all in.

There are far more men than women pilots in ballooning even today, but there were even fewer women in the sport back when Treacy started. She said one she followed closely, but never got to meet, was Nikki Caplan, who died of breast cancer in 1985. Caplan was inducted into the Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2014.

Treacy enjoys the history of people like Caplan, who continues to inspire her. She has also enjoyed the camaraderie of other women pilots, such as Glo Kehoe and Beth Wright-Smith, who were on the corporate circuit with her.

Treacy said her gender never resulted in different treatment in the ballooning community, even in the early days of ballooning. Growing up with brothers, Treacy said that the atmosphere was comfortable for her.

She still believes it is a great environment for women and is excited as she sees more women become pilots. She looks forward, however, to seeing a higher percentage of female leadership in ballooning organizations and leading ballooning events around the country.

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Treacy inflating her balloonPhoto by Kim McKinney

Within six months of that 15-minute flight with her instructor, Treacy bought her own balloon. Soon after obtaining her commercial license she was piloting corporate balloons, and ballooning became not just her hobby, but her career. She flew for General Motors for about 17 years and has flown for many other corporations since that time.

Treacy has taken the NCAA College Football balloon to the 2016 National Championships, the Coca-Cola balloon to the 2013 and 2014 Basketball Final Fours, flown the Time Warner Cable balloon over the NASCAR All Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the NFL’s AFC and NFC’s balloons to the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2011. In 2009 Treacy flew Warner Brothers Wizard of Oz balloon on the 70th anniversary tour across the US. That is the balloon you are most likely to see her fly today.

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Treacy flying the Wizard of Oz balloon, with friendsPhoto by Kim McKinney

Treacy is also a gas balloon pilot. That started as somewhat of a fluke. Dr. Fred Hyde, a gas balloon pilot from Kansas City, MO, needed another pilot at the last minute and Marsha volunteered. Othere in the crowd pointed to her, knowing her excitement of the prospect. Hyde picked her, and within minutes they set off for an overnight gas balloon flight that took them from Colorado Springs, CO to Russell Springs, KS.

It was the start of a great partnership. She and Hyde logged nearly 300 hours together in gas balloons, competing in three World Championships, the Coup De Gordon Bennett, the REMAX Cup, and an America’s Challenge race. They flew not just in the United States, but also in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Yugoslavia (a rather memorable landing where they ended up in jail.)

In 1996 Treacy was part of the test launch team of the Virgin Global Challenger. They were testing the consumption of propane fuel in a 24-hour period, along with other elements. Richard Branson, along with co-pilots Per Linstrand and Steve Fossett, used the data in their attempt of an around-the-world flight in 1998. While the testing went well, the around-the-world flight fell short due to bad weather.

Treacy was featured in the Smithsonian's aviation exhibit "Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots", from 1993 through 2002, and the book compiled by Carolyn Russo. Russo interviewed 37 pilots from all fields of aviation and Treacy represented females in ballooning.

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Photo by Kim McKinney

Treacy says she has been able to see a lot of ballooning history and at this point in her life she doesn't want to be invisible. Instead she wants to make sure she mentors others, and tells her stories so that the history she has been a part of remains recorded and remembered.

"I still say I'm the luckiest person I know," Treacy says, "Just because I'm just a small town girl who saw the guy who owned the hardware store flying a balloon over town."

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Still is."

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I love stories of people and places and enjoy telling these stories. I live in my hometown of Statesville, NC, in the Charlotte area, and love to show how lovely life is here. More is going on than may meet the eye. I also enjoy expanding throughout North Carolina to show the places and activities and people that make me believe life is fascinating and travel as much as I can, so write about that, too. I also have a passion for justice and a special interest in accessible healthcare, including treatment for drug and alcohol dependency. I am a woman of faith, joy, laughter, adventure, and live life to the full. Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kimmckinney719 or my blog KimberleyMcKinney.com or https://kimmckinney719.medium.com.

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