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Meet the U. Iowa grad who shattered world hot air balloon records

University of Iowa biostatistician Kimberly Magee breaks three world records, six national records

Kimberly Magee talks a selfie in March at 15,000 feet and northwest of Des Moines. Because of the altitude, she was on supplemental oxygen. (Photo courtesy Kimberly Magee)
Kimberly Magee talks a selfie in March at 15,000 feet and northwest of Des Moines. Because of the altitude, she was on supplemental oxygen. (Photo courtesy Kimberly Magee)
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IOWA CITY — It was a bone-chilling morning Jan. 19 in Fargo, N.D., reaching a high of just 2 degrees and bottoming out at 16 below zero.

But that’s how University of Iowa biostatistician and competitive hot air balloonist Kimberly Magee wanted it — even though she planned to spend two hours dangling above 10,000 feet with a propane tank strapped to her back.

The propane tank was fueling a hot-air balloon capable of holding 14,000 cubic feet of air, much smaller than typical balloons that hold 90,000 cubic feet.

“We’re guessing it was somewhere between negative 40 and negative 50 up at altitude,” Magee, 28, of Swisher, said about that January morning.

“That was kind of the point,” she said. ”You burn less fuel the colder it is.”

She needed to burn less fuel to go higher and farther — and she did just that, breaking three world records and six national records, including the world female altitude and distance records with that size of balloon.

Magee reached 10,331 feet with her January flight, a 37 percent improvement over the previous record. She blew away the previous 14-mile female world distance record with her 61.1 mile trip from Fargo to Fergus Falls, Minn.

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Although she wore a snowsuit and stuffed her gloves and pockets with hand warmers, Magee’s willingness to brave the cold made the achievement possible.

“The more weight you take up, the more fuel you have to burn,” she said. “So it’s a fine balance between how warm do you want to be versus how much fuel do you want to use?”

The next record Magee attempted came on a still chilly but less brutal St. Patrick’s Day. Using a slightly larger balloon capable of holding 42,000 cubic feet of air, she drifted 363.4 miles from Mitchell, S.D, to Troy, Iowa — topping another three world records and three national records.

“There may be more records in my future,” said Magee, who has been a biostatistician in the Clinical Trials Statistical and Data Management Center in the UI College of Public Health since 2015, after earning her master’s degree from the UI.

Her experience with statistics and prowess in the field of mathematics is imperative for the precision required in ballooning competitions — which largely ask pilots to hit specific targets in the sky, land objects at precise points on the ground, or create designs using angles in the air.

For now, Magee said she’s focused on training for next year’s women’s world championships. She competed last year in Poland as one of four on the U.S. team, placing just out of medal range in fourth place.

Having ballooned competitively for about five years, Magee said, she’s got plenty of local events to keep her sharp — along with her husband Adam Magee, 29, who has gone to some junior world championships.

‘I GOT REALLY LUCKY’

Their common interest in hot air balloons isn’t coincidence. They both grew up in balloon families — Kim Magee in St. Louis, where her parents were both commercial pilots.

“I got really lucky,” she said. “Some people do boating. We did ballooning.”

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Magee didn’t take her first hot air balloon ride until age 7. Then she would go on occasional rides with her family — not quite realizing how much she enjoyed it until going away for her undergrad to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“After those first few weeks I was gone I was like, ‘Man, I really do miss it,’” she said. “Then I really got serious about getting my license, and I had it in less than a year.”

Just like some parents buy used cars for their newly-licensed teen drivers, Magee’s parents invested in a used hot air balloon for her.

About that time, a woman came into her dad’s hot air balloon repair shop with a new balloon needing inspection — and a son.

“She had a son who was also a pilot, and my dad introduced us,” she said. “We’re about the same age, which is a little rare in ballooning. There’s not many people who are in our age group.”

The couple wed in 2014 — at age 23 — and despite their common passion they didn’t get married in the sky. They didn’t incorporate balloons into their wedding much at all, actually, except to invite a lot of balloonist friends and then release paper lanterns into the sky that night.

‘GRAYING OF THE SPORT’

National and world records have to be reviewed and confirmed by the National Aeronautic Association in Washington, D.C., and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Paris. Magee said her January flight finished both reviews last month.

Her March flight has completed its national review and is at the world level right now.

Although neither body tracks records by age, Magee said both she and her husband have been on the younger end of the balloon-age spectrum for about a decade.

“The average balloon pilot is probably in their mid-40s,” she said. “It’s a typical aviation problem right now — we kind of have a graying of the sport, where a lot of people are getting older, and we don’t have a lot of young blood coming in.”

But that’s starting to shift, “which is really exciting,” Magee said.

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She and her husband are helping facilitate that, having recently launched “The Balloon Training Academy,” with a mission to improve safety and increase the number of pilots.

With more than 50 students passing through their program since its inception two years ago, Magee said, it’s responsible for training more than a third of all new U.S. pilots in that time.

The program, while based in Iowa, offers online, self-paced education, as well as in-person training via a network of volunteer instructors.

And now it’s co-led by a world record holder.

“Another proud husband alert,” Adam Magee posted on Facebook after the world record flight in January. “People ask me, ‘Were you nervous watching her?’ Absolutely not! If you knew the prep and skill at which the flight was conducted, there was not even the thought of nerves.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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