Black Track- September 30, 2022

2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The 2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is about to start in New Mexico from October 1st -9th. This time of the year is an exciting time in our state where it is inevitable to see a variety of different hot air balloons across the New Mexico sky. Some families plan to take time off from work or school to take the whole family to experience the diverse balloons and events. In addition, tourists are often encouraged to make the trip for the week-long fiesta (festivities). However, many people are unaware that there are two Black balloonists. In this article, we’d like to introduce you to the two of them, Bill Costen and Joyce Beckwith. 

Ms. Joyce Beckwith is the first licensed African American female balloon pilot, and her handle is commonly known as “Captain Smiles,” but officially as Captain Joyce Beckwith. One of the most exciting parts about “Captain Smiles,” is that she received her training from the Airborne Heat Balloon Flying School here in New Mexico. (A.2021) New Mexico should highlight and celebrate such an accomplishment. More surprisingly, it was only four years ago (2018) that Captain Joyce Beckwith received her license. She began flying commercially in 2019. (A.2021) She was born and raised in Kenya. She encourages everyone to come out to the balloon fiesta for a hot air balloon ride with her.

Our second African American balloon Master Pilot is Bill Costen. Mr. Costen became the first male African American Hot Air Balloon Master Pilot in 2016. Before that, Mr. Costen was a professional football player for the Buffalo Bills. He reports that he first heard about becoming a hot air balloonist from his cousin and his boss who wanted to start a balloon club. (Balloon Man Talk on Sonstein Sunday. YouTube, Sonstein Sunday, 10 Feb. 2021) Ms. Costen’s curiosity led him to pursue his newfound passion, and the rest is history. Let us discuss some of his accomplishments so we don’t skip over his beautiful journey.

Mr. Costen began his ballooning career in 1975. He created and designed, The State of Connecticut Bicentennial Balloon. Soon after, he became a Raven (Aerostar) Dealer, and started Sky Endeavors with Jim Isler – a hot air balloon company dealing in sales, instruction, rides, and promotions. Mr. Costen was featured in Ebony Magazine in 1977 and appeared in Black Enterprise in 1981 and 1989. Mr. Costen owns The Costen Cultural Exhibit, which includes photographs, fine arts, and memorabilia of African Americans throughout history. (History Makers, 2022) Mr. Bill Costen retired from balloon piloting in 2018. In 2021 the documentary film “Balloon Man” was released by his daughter Chantal Potter, who also directed it. “Balloon Man” received Film of the Year at the 2020 Rhode Island Black Film Festival and was nominated for the 2021 HBO MAX Best Documentary at the Run & Shoot Filmworks Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. (History Makers, 2022)

The New Mexico community should remember the historical significance of these African American names, especially during The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. “Captain Smiles says, flying makes her feel confident, and proud to be where she is”. Both Bill Costen and Captain Joyce Beckwith got into the field of commercial ballooning not to become the first Black balloonist but because it interested and passion for them. If you’re interested or you know of anyone who is interested in hot air ballooning, encourage them to pursue becoming a hot air balloonist through reading, photographs, TV or simply going to the balloon fiesta every year. Bill Costen and Captain Joyce Beckwith fed their passion and accomplished their goals, and so can you. The sky is the limit.