In August 2019, Virginia Waddell of Front Royal flew her first solo flight in a balloon, placing her on track to earn her pilot certification and become one of only 5,000 balloon pilots in the US.
As if that weren’t enough to make her stand out among her high school peers, the Randolph-Macon Academy senior also made a bit of history, as she became what just might be the first Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) student to solo in a balloon. While AFJROTC Headquarters couldn’t confirm that, they also couldn’t find a record of an AFJROTC student accomplishing a balloon solo before.
Randolph-Macon Academy has a flight program that focuses on powered flight and drones, and having students solo in a school-owned Cessna 172 is something that typically happens several times each school year. Those students are then given a “wing” pin to wear on their AFJROTC uniform, informing their peers of their accomplishment. When Virginia accomplished her first balloon solo on August 25th, her father, Paul Waddell, obtained a wing pin that had a balloon in the center–all the way back from World War II.
Virginia held onto that pin with pride, though it was not something she could wear on her AFJROTC uniform. However, with work by both Paul and R-MA’s Senior Aerospace Science Instructor, Lt Col Joel Jones, USAF, Retired, AFJROTC Headquarters eventually approved Virginia to wear a different pin of recognition: the Civil Air Patrol Balloon Pilot Badge.
“It’s nice to be recognized for doing something unusual, that some people consider scary,” said Virginia. “When I’m wearing it, people ask questions. It’s a good conversation starter.”
Virginia’s parents got into ballooning when her mother, Mary Kim, bought a balloon ride for their first wedding anniversary. Although Paul initially resisted the idea, once he was up in the air, he was hooked, and he has passed that love of ballooning onto his daughter.
“I like that it’s different. It just makes you unique from a lot of people,” Virginia said. “Going up there, for the most part, it’s rather quiet. I don’t want to say it’s a feeling of freedom, because that’s such a cliche…it’s just really cool. It’s different.”
Virginia also sees it as her responsibility to learn the craft and pass it on to others. “It’s kind of a dying thing, which is a shame,” she said. “I don’t want it to die off.”
It might be surprising that ballooning is a dying form of flight, but it comes with challenges. It is completely weather-dependent, making flights possible only on the best days. A balloon is subject to the whimsy of the wind, and slower than a glider or powered aircraft. In addition, ballooning is a form of flying that takes a collaborative effort. The pilot in the balloon has a radio to communicate with a one- to- two-person crew in a ground vehicle that is “chasing” the balloon. When it is time to land, it is the ground crew’s responsibility to find a field and obtain the owner’s permission to land there. The balloonists do their best to avoid livestock and crops, but some owners are protective of their open fields. If permission is denied, the crew heads off to the next location and the balloon pilot has to gain altitude again.
In spite of those challenges however, ballooning can be a money-earning business–once you get past the expense of taking lessons and purchasing a balloon, of course. Virginia’s parents used the supplemental income to invest in a private school education for their daughter. Virginia even has a potential job offer as a pilot, from a real estate company, once she obtains her commercial pilot certification (an achievement she hopes will come to pass in the summer of 2020). And there is nothing like the peace of floating quietly over the ground, or the challenge of adjusting the flame to control your altitude. It’s the oldest type of flying in the history of mankind, and this special young lady is now a key part of its future.