KAREN CONVERSE AND HER CREW roll up to balloon events sporting matching pink-and-black apparel inspired by her 90,000-cubic-foot balloon, Penumbra, and its alternating vertical bands of color.

A pink flag with a black skull-and-crossbones design adorns the rear of the balloon-chase vehicle to inform her crew of the direction and strength of surface-level winds while also alerting passersby that balloonists are on the move.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have a choice,” says Converse, who lives in Albuquerque. “My dad was a pilot, so me and the rest of the family were crew.” As she got older, her responsibilities increased from holding the throat of the balloon open during inflation to operating the fan. “I’d go out with other pilots and get more experience with different crews and different balloons,” she recalls.

By age 16, Converse was enrolled in flight-ground school and taking flying lessons. “I was doing great up until my solo flight, when I just freaked out and quit,” she says. Still, she continued to crew for her dad until he sold his balloon in 1999 and her son was born. “I took like a 20-year hiatus,” she says.

Catch all the balloons taking flight at the Balloon Fiesta. Photograph by NMTD.

When a friend got back into ballooning around 2019, so did Converse. “My kids had grown up and I finally had time for myself, so I finished my private certification,” says the 45-year-old. “It always felt like something was missing in my life when I went away from it. It was important to me to come back to it.”

Now, her niece and nephew are part of her crew—just like in the old days with her dad. “Their favorite part is after the flight when they get to play with other kids from other crews. They roam around and hang out outside,” she says. “That’s something you don’t see much anymore these days, packs of kids roaming around and having a good time out in the dirt.”

Her return to ballooning has brought back a lot of positive memories from her youth—something she hopes to create for her new crew and balloon friends. “Anytime you’re around your ballooning friends, it feels like family,” she says.

Read more: Follow these tips to elevate your Balloon Fiesta photography.