“I’M GONNA GO HOT!” Kierstynn Wehner shouts to her crew over the loud, droning noise of a nearby inflation fan. It’s just after sunrise in Rio Rancho as the 17-year-old triggers and steers a 15-foot column of fire into the throat of a hot-air balloon named Bottom’s Up.

The 90,000-cubic-foot envelope responds to the heat and starts from the ground. “Weight on!” she calls out. “Everyone put their weight on the basket, please.”

The inflation fan gets turned off and wheeled clear of the balloon’s gondola, which is being swarmed with crew to keep the now-upright balloon in place as Wehner briefs her flight instructor, Jessica Price, for launch. She reviews her checklist and asks one of her crew to check the airspace for other balloons or obstacles. The crewperson gives the thumbs up: “You’re all clear.” Flames climb into the balloon, heating the air as Bottom’s Up takes flight.

Wehner grew up around balloons. Her mother started crewing in 1976, and her father became a pilot in 1996. Now a senior at Albuquerque Aviation Academy (formerly Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics, and Science Academy), she already has some noteworthy accomplishments during her budding career, including FAA drone certification and her private single-engine-airplane license. “I will have my private balloon certificate before I turn 18,” she says.

But her journey hasn’t been without some turbulence. “During Covid, my balloon friends were really my salvation,” she says. “It was a rough time, because before, I didn’t really have any friends. I was alone. I wasn’t at school. I didn’t have anybody to talk to.”

Things changed when she made the switch from Albuquerque public schools to the 11-year-old STEAM charter school. “Everybody’s just like, ‘Wow, you’re a balloon pilot?’ ”

Now, she’s recruiting young people to the sport, and Aviation Academy even added balloon-flight training to its curriculum in August. “In middle school, I would try to drag kids out to go ballooning. Nobody was ever interested,” she says. “The first day of Balloon Fiesta last year, we had like 10 teenagers on our crew from my school. It was amazing.”

Read more: Set up camp for the full Balloon Fiesta experience.