07 Aug 2022

Up, up and away! Business is ballooning for Kildare man

Flying high: US-based Monasterevin native and wife have flown over 5,000 passengers into the sky

Up, up and away! Business is ballooning for Kildare man

Monasterevin native Damien Mahony and his wife Keely

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 programme.

Like the rest of the US, the business is currently mandated to close but Damien and Keely are busily preparing for the tourist season when restrictions are lifted.

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.

As crew chief for Orlando Florida’s Blue Water Balloons, he gained experience on the ground before becoming a pilot himself.

Over the years, he’s flown thousands of hours and entertained countless passengers; making a name for himself flying the largest hot air balloon in the US while acting as general manager and chief pilot for Orlando Balloon Rides. Damien has flown balloons all over the country — however, nothing compares to flying the Black Hills.

Keely, whose family is steeped in ballooning, started taking flying lessons at age 13 and went on to become one of the youngest female pilots in the US.

Keely grew up flying in northern California and really found her stride flying over the Orlando Florida swamps.

She worked with the Hard Rock International conglomerate and worked with music legends like U2, Rihanna, KISS, Imagine Dragons, The WHO and Yoko Ono Lennon.

But her desire to do something different wouldn’t go away.

She longed for days reminiscent of her childhood, enjoying nature and sharing the intriguing sport of ballooning.

Starting out

The couple left their Florida jobs and purchased a 30-year licence with their new company The Flying Circus Inc.

Keely said: “We quit our day jobs and bought a hot air balloon business! If you’ve ever considered quitting your day job and running away with the circus, we can totally relate!”

The two together are a dynamic duo. Combined, they have over 40 years of flying experience and 25 years of marketing experience.

They’ve flown celebrities, hiked Panama, swam the Mediterranean, shared (bad) jokes with passengers from around the world and made countless friends along the way.

Recently married in April 2018, Keely and Damien spend their winters focusing on travel, volunteering and balloon maintenance.

In the summer months, they fly and share the Black Hills with some of the most adventurous and fun-loving visitors to the area.

They hike in the afternoon and enjoy life away from a desk and a computer, doing what they love — living.

Founded by Steve Bauer in 1984, Black Hills Balloons quickly became one of the most well-established attractions in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Steve’s commitment to the area and the local tourism allowed Black Hills Balloons to thrive for many years.

Keely and Damien built on the well-established business with a focus on a marketing and customer service.

Damien and Keely said their spending down time during Covid-19 restrictions on maintenance on their balloons.

Keely said: “We are fairly fortunate. Because we are a husband and wife team, we are able to continue working and share space at our home and our downtown building that stores our equipment.

“We are off-season now, with our flying / tourist season technically starting May 1, but there is always maintenance to take care of in the off months.

“In addition to our pilot certificates, Damien and I are certified FAA repairmen.

“All hot air balloons are registered aircraft that require an annual inspection, just like an airplane or helicopter.

“The inspection, maintenance and repairs need to be done by a certified repairman.

“So, during this strange time, we’ve focused on annual inspections on our own equipment, as well as the 15 plus hot air balloons we maintain and manage; owned by private pilots located in South Dakota and Wyoming.

“Prior to the requested stay at home orders, we were also focused on two student pilots; flying and training with them as often as possible.”

Damien and Keely live in the town of Custer which has 2,000 residents and was the location of their wedding day just over two years ago.

Keely said: “Our little town of Custer was buzzing with Irish love and song, the week of our wedding.

“To this day, you can get a great pint of Guinness and a cider at our local pub, The Custer Wolf.”

She added: “Since we purchased the business in 2015, we’ve flown over 5,000 passengers.

“One of the highlights, is a light snack of strong Irish cheddar, crackers and muffins with a toast of champagne to complete the flight!”

We're running a regular series on Kildare people making their lives abroad - particularly during the Covid-19 crisis. If you would like to share your story, please email

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