The Leinster Leader is a newspaper published in County Kildare, Ireland.  The paper recently featured Black Hills Balloons in a series honoring Kildare natives abroad.


Monasterevin native Damien Mahony is living the American dream with wife Keely as their day job is flying high in hot air balloons over the majestic Black Hills area of South Dakota.

The couple recently were visited by singer Daniel O’Donnell and his wife Majella as part of the Daniel & Majella’s USA Road Trip on RTE and their Black Hills Balloons business was featured on the program.

They live in a popular tourist area which is home to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Devils Tower National Monument and the historic Gold Rush-era town Deadwood.

Damien was raised in Monasterevin and emigrated to the US after graduating from the University of Limerick in the 1990s.

The Kildare man started his career in the commercial balloon business in 1999 and hasn’t looked back.

To read the full story, click here.


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TheDyrt.com is the #1 resource for authentic camping info across the US.

In 2019, The Dyrt featured Black Hills Balloons in an article focusing on owners Keely and Damien’s start in hot air ballooning.


It was still dark out when my alarm went off. I’m not a morning person, but the “bucket list” day ahead of me was motivation enough to get out from my blankets. Autumn had fully arrived in South Dakota, so I layered up, preparing for dawn’s chill. As I drove to our meeting spot, I watched the clear sky slowly blend from magenta to gold with the rising sun. It was a beautiful day for a hot air balloon ride over the Black Hills of South Dakota.

In a parking lot just west of downtown Custer, South Dakota, a group of us met to be briefed for the day’s hot air balloon ride. Keely Mahony, co-owner of Black Hills Balloons with her husband, Damien Mahony, had just released a small, black pilot balloon into the air. Floating up and away from us, this helium-filled balloon helps the crew see which direction, and how fast, the different layers of wind are traveling. Ever-fickle winds can change by height, and are important for the pilots to know for take-off, landing, and general passenger safety.

As we all watched the little balloon climb higher into the gradually blueing sky, Keely chatted with passengers about her history with hot air balloon rides.

“I’ve been flying since I was seven,” she said. “I’ll be forty this month.”

In 2000, Keely moved to Florida from California to take an internship with SeaWorld. Having grown up ballooning with her mom, she’d had her pilot’s license since the age of 17, and wanted to stay involved with the sport.

“I kind of feel like I was raised at ballooning events, and being surrounded by the same group of wacky pilots,” Keely laughs in an interview with The Dyrt.

After some research, she contacted one of Orlando’s hot air balloon companies and asked if she could help out from time to time. That’s when she met Damien, who was working as ground crew for the company. By 2010, Damien was the chief pilot for Orlando Balloon Rides, and Keely was working with Hard Rock International doing corporate marketing and philanthropy.

“I did that for eight years, and I loved it,” Keely remembers. “But the fast-paced world of Orlando, and the hecticness of the job—I was just ready to do something a little different. And Damien was kind of feeling the same way.”

Keely’s family has a cabin in South Dakota’s Black Hills, so she had been coming to the region for years. She started bringing Damien out each September for a hot air balloon event held in the Stratobowl. The Stratobowl is a natural depression within the Black Hills where the National Geographic Society and United States Army Air Corps sponsored a stratospheric balloon launch site between 1934 and 1935. By 2018, Keely and Damien would be married in the Stratobowl. They’d also be three years into owning their own hot air balloon company.

Damien had fallen in love with the Black Hills almost instantly. So, when an offer came in February 2015 to purchase Black Hills Balloons, Damien moved to South Dakota and was ready to fly by that May. Keely joined shortly after, once she’d tied up loose ends in Orlando.

“We were looking for a different kind of quality of life, pace of life,” Damien explains to The Dyrt. “A bit more control over our own destiny.”

“You mean, from a traditional, glamorous, travel- and celeb-filled job to wearing hiking boots and trying to keep up with a team of boys, running around in wet knee-high grass at sunrise?” Keely jests.

Keely and Damien continue to be excited by the opportunities afforded to them as small business owners. In addition to taking Black Hills visitors out on hot air balloon rides, Keely offers pilot training to students each year. The two of them are also certified through the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct repairs on balloons, and keep busy with these projects throughout the winter months.

“I just love introducing the sport to people,” Keely shares. “I love the passengers. I love helping fulfill bucket lists. I love every second of it.”


“What do you think?” Keely asked Damien. “Magic Field?”

“Yeah, Magic Field,” Damien concurred.

Based on the pilot balloon’s flight—that was now a speck on the horizon—the crew decided to launch from Magic Field, a natural open field of autumn-browned grass a few miles down a dirt road. When the Black Hills are windy and suitable launching spots are hard to find, Magic Field is always nice and calm, Damien explained. It was clear they knew this land well, and from perspectives rarely seen. We loaded into passenger vans for a 15-minute drive out to the take-off point.

“This is your chance to get some last minutes of napping in!” Damien teased.

Along the drive, we passed wild turkeys, craggy granite boulders, and ponderosa pines. Passengers spoke with one another on the ride, the excitement of the day palpable in their voices.

Jack and Diane Felts were in the area for the first time, having traveled from Jacksonville, Florida, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. A hot air balloon ride had been on Jack’s bucket list, “We planned this a year out,” he shared. “It’s not something you do every day!”

Watching the hot air balloon unfurl across the field under a pink and blue morning, each of the crew members expertly busying themselves with ropes and the basket, is like watching a ballet in slow motion. Interspersed with this deliberate and skilled dance are moments of raucous, violent combustion. This is at the heart of hot air ballooning’s enchantment—the juxtaposition of intensity and grace, the hurricane and the silence, the slow ballet, so completely stirred together.

Damien took the pilot’s seat in the middle of the balloon basket, and Keely situated everyone around him for takeoff, snapping photos for each of the excited passengers on the hot air balloon ride.

The crew released the balloon’s tie-downs, and just like that, we were in motion, being tugged gently upward in a giant wicker basket. That first moment of realizing I was floating was magic. It took a moment for me to get my bearings, but once the initial nerves wore off, I was impressed with how gentle the hot air balloon ride was. It was a slow, gliding, bird’s eye view over the treetops of Black Hills National Forest.

Damien pointed out key features along the way. In the distance, we could make out Crazy Horse Memorial, the famous Cathedral Spires along Needles Highway, and Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. Looking down, we saw the fluffy white tails of deer galloping through the woods. We dipped down into a scenic ravine and then rose back up to travel the forest’s canopy. Being up there was a new kind of quiet, a deep sense of peace.

Damien navigated the landscape with finesse, knowing the exact amount of extra fuel needed to hop over a pine tree with mere inches to spare. He looked for landing spots like an artist designing their canvas, the winds as his brush. When we began our descent into a deserted bison field, I held on tightly, anticipating a bumpy landing, but we touched the ground like a feather falling to the earth.

“I truly enjoyed it, and I get on a ladder and don’t like looking down!” Diane laughed.

“Even Don who didn’t want to come is happy!” Lynn Reffett joined in, who was visiting from Moline, Illinois to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary with Don. “I would do it again. Everyone should do it at least once!”

Read the rest of the story and how The Dyrt recommends planning your balloon ride in the Black Hills.  CLICK HERE


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USA Today featured Black Hills Balloons in their Travel Tips.  Here is what they had to say.

“Black Hills Balloons, which operates out of CusterSouth Dakota, offers aerial tours of the region via hot air balloon rides. Balloons hold from two to 12 passengers per flight and reservations are required. Special amenities and flight times can be requested like champagne, appetizers and sunrise departures. Each tour lasts around three hours. Balloons are inspected and maintained daily for safety.

Balloon tours travel over the southern portion of the Black Hills viewing sights such as the Badlands National Park where, as of 2011, native bison and bighorn sheep still roam free. Another attraction you’ll fly around is Harney Peak, which is the highest elevation point in South Dakota at over 7,200 feet. Multiple day packages are available which include a balloon flight tour, overnight accommodations at your guides choosing, mountain hikes and an underground tour of Wind Cave National Park.”

Visit the full story HERE



YOUNG KIDS AND THE OPEN ROAD:  The Emmer’s Ultimate Family Road Trip

Minneapolis lifestyle photographer Jill Emmer and her family embark on a trek across South Dakota. What they find – and capture – is adventure and beauty for all ages.

Join The Emmer’s on their ultimate South Dakota Trip.

View the full story HERE



Black Hills Balloons was featured by Shine On Photography.  Here is her view and first-hand experience:

“On Saturday the alarm went off at 4:30am! It was time to visit Black Hills Balloons!  As they prepared the balloon, a gentle sunrise was starting to take shape.

Damien and Keely are the owners of Black Hills Balloons. They were warm and welcoming and cracked enough jokes to make everyone comfortable. They are also very skilled pilots and also work as instructors. In the summer they fly almost every morning – weather permitting.

This was a very special experience for our family. Something that we will always, always remember! Thrilling, yet serene and peaceful. When you are slowly floating above the trees, it is very quiet and calm.

It doesn’t make you feel afraid of heights like a fair ride might – because it is so slow and gradual – you feel at ease.

Add this one to your must-do list! It is amazing! And if you are like me – you will have so many pictures that you will be sharing them for years to come.  A definite South Dakota #MyGreatPlace experience!

Back on the ground! We found it fascinating that they can’t totally control where the balloons end up (the wind does that!) So they land in empty fields – sometimes on private property.

Damien said that the majority of Black Hills residents are very welcoming! And sure enough – we landed in a very kind gentleman’s yard. He came out and chatted with us (can you imagine looking out your window at 7am and seeing this huge balloon landing in your yard?!) The boys rolled around in his yard with his dogs as they packed up the balloon.

Thank you so much Black Hills Balloons for this absolutely amazing experience! I want to go again right now!”

View the full story and her amazing photography HERE.



Matador Network visited South Dakota and found more than just Mount Rushmore.  Check out their video.

Looking for the perfect road trip? You’ve probably heard all kinds of suggestions, but here’s one you might not have considered: South Dakota.



Best Things South Dakota named Black Hills Balloons #1 of 9 Best Sightseeing Tours in South Dakota.  Here’s what they had to say:

Whether Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, the state capitol, the Corn Palace, Wall, or Falls Park, tourists are drawn to South Dakota in droves! There’s a sight to see virtually around every corner. Experience all the scenic beauty and fascinating history of the state by taking the best sightseeing tours in South Dakota!

Black Hills Balloons:  With 30 years of tour experience and the largest, most modern balloons in the five-state area, Black Hills Balloons is a safe, exciting adventure! This tour flies over the ponderosa pine forests and mountains of the Black Hills. Reservations are required. On the day of the tour, guests are taken to a field to watch the balloon being inflated, which takes approximately 20 minutes. The tour lasts one hour, and guests are treated to views of local wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, and a beautiful sunrise. Upon landing, guests are toasted with champagne while the ground crew packs up the balloon and equipment.

View the whole story.  CLICK HERE



Hot air balloons from as far away as Florida are expected to fill the historic South Dakota Stratobowl Friday through Sunday in honor of the local aviation landmark.

The Stratobowl, first made famous in 1934 when the National Geographic Society and United States Army Air Corps launched a manned high-altitude research balloon as early space exploration, now hosts balloonists once a year as a historical tribute to early space exploration and balloon flight.

Organized by Black Hills Balloons in partnership with Sioux Falls Pilot Kay West, the event allows spectators to get an up close and personal view of the balloon launch — and for those willing to pay, hot air balloon rides.

“Launching from the Stratobowl is a once in a lifetime experience for most, but we’re lucky enough to do this year after year,” West said. “Our goal as pilots is to recognize the landowners and help generate exposure and appreciation for this historical site, in hopes that it will be preserved for generations to come.

“If our small annual event can help the Stratobowl gain the awareness and honor it deserves, we’ve done our job.”

Spectators are encouraged to hike the one-mile “Stratobowl Rim Trail” to view the launch. Balloons will lift off just after sunrise, weather permitting.

For a cost, Black Hills Balloons is booking passengers to fly from the event, while DubBus Limousine and Tour Company is offering VIP viewing, allowing access to the launch field while enjoying a champagne brunch.

“The spectators and passengers are the best part of the event,” said Keely Wade, owner and pilot at Black Hills Balloons. “We get to witness their joy while providing an experience they’ll never forget. … And the spectators cheering from the rim trail, it’s just so much fun to hear the excitement in the air.”

The Stratobowl historical balloon event is each September and is only open by invitation to pilots.

Anyone interested in taking a hot air balloon ride can make a reservation at blackhillsballoons.com or by calling 673-2520. The cost is $295 per person.

Spectators can view the launch for free from the Stratobowl Rim Trail, located off U.S. Highway 16, or they can book a seat in the VIP viewing tour through VW Limo Bus at vwlimobus.com. The cost of the VIP viewing tour is $80 per person.

For more information about the Stratobowl, visit stratobowl.com



Black Hills Balloons was featured on Kat Carney’s Top 5 Adventure Activites in South Dakota.  Here is what she had to say:

Last month South Dakota Tourism sent my mom and I on a mission to explore South Dakota. We found ourselves hundreds of feet in the air on a hot air balloon ride, spotting all kinds of wildlife on the trails, and getting rained on in one of the most out-of-this-world landscapes I have ever seen. Check out this list of our top 5 favorite activities in South Dakota.

Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise
Getting to experience silently floating through the sky as the sun illuminated the frost on the ground below is one of the best memories of my life. South Dakota Tourism asked if I wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride with Black Hills Balloons, and I immediately responded, yes.
My mom was coming along, and it was a dream coming full circle. You see, about 10 years ago my mom and I drove 3 hours to a tiny town in Kansas for a hot air balloon festival we discovered was through the local newspaper. We arrived too late to see the balloons, but we still had a great time enjoying the town and talking to balloonists. Ever since then we’ve wanted to ride in a hot air balloon together.
So a decade later when the opportunity landed in our laps, I was thrilled. We had a gorgeous view of Custer, South Dakota and even spotted some elk running through the forest below. The experience was perfect and I especially loved the ballooning story our guide told at the end, along with a mimosa toast.

View the full story and her stunning photography HERE



In their travel post on September 26, 2018, Black Hills Balloons made Conde Nast Traveler’s list of 20 places where you can go on a romantic hot air balloon ride. Here’s what they had to say:

20 Places Where You Can Go on a Romantic Hot-Air Balloon Ride.

Seeking a unique perspective? Consider an aerial view. Whether you’re gliding over red rocks or floating through frozen glaciers, there’s something so romantic about a hot-air balloon. Scroll on to book your next high-altitude adventure.

Black Hills:  Couples visiting South Dakota can enjoy 60 minutes of magic soaring above the beautiful Black Hills and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. A Champagne toast and souvenir certificate are included in the price tag.

View the full story.  CLICK HERE