Kenya’s 33-year-old Captain Joyce Beckwith is affectionately known as Captain Smiles, and it’s easy to see why. She beams as she navigates the vast blue skies over the world-famous Masaai Mara National Reserve, her infectious smile spreading to her passengers and those afforded the opportunity to see her in action.
Watching her work, it is obvious that she takes great pleasure in what she does. Born and raised in Kenya to a family in the transport business, she is the first licensed Black female balloon pilot, and her passion for sharing the gift of flight shines through.
Captain Smiles earned her license in 2018 at the acclaimed Airborne Heat Balloon Flying School in New Mexico. She began commercial flying in 2019. She first flew in a hot air balloon as a passenger in 2008 and fell in love with flying.
“As I took hundreds of flights over Maasai Mara, I was always inspired by the art of flying balloons, the approach and respect for nature, and the engineering of the aircraft itself,” she told Travel Noire. “There was just something about the smiles and excitement of the passengers during a balloon safari.”
“I was also inspired by The Beckwiths. My husband and his family are balloonists and they opened the door for me into a world of hot air balloons.”
“Elly Kirkman, was another inspiration of mine. She’s an Australian balloon pilot who slapped my behind every year encouraging me that I should get my balloon license. Today, we laugh about it because in response, I finally slapped her with my license at hand.”
In addition to flying hot air balloons, Captain Smiles is an experienced safari and travel consultant. When she is not flying, she dabbles in organizing bespoke safari experiences for solo, family, and group travelers around the world.
Although she works at a popular tourist destination and assists others with their travel experiences, Captain Smiles sometimes enjoys being a tourist and traveling, as well.
“My family is scattered throughout the world. We are everywhere, so sometimes my travel is planned based upon which family member I am visiting.”
All of her favorite destinations, however, are on the African content.
“I would pick traveling within Kenya first, then Namibia. While on long holidays (a six-week break from flying) we take a few weeks to travel by road. It’s so much nicer because we are basically locked in the bush most of the time anyway.”
“The pandemic grounded my travel to New Zealand last year, but I got to enjoy more of my own country. I recently drove from Nairobi to Amboseli National Park to spend Christmas there, and during the drive I took my time to stop and see beautiful sights and explore a bit. I also took my first balloon safari out of Maasai Mara on Christmas day. It was rewarding to see that part of Kenya and there was an absolutely breathtaking view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I had a trip down in Sossusvlei, where my husband was flying over the dunes of Namib Desert. It was a truly incredible experience. Now Namib Desert is on my bucket list of places I wish to work as a balloon pilot. I want to see more of Africa; the rest of the world can wait until I tick off all the African countries.”
Captain Smiles says flying makes her feel confident, and proud to be where she is.
“Being able to combine warm Kenyan hospitality and flying safaris over the Mara gives me a good perspective of life.”
She also says it is quite humbling to be receiving recognition as the only Black woman in her field.
“It feels great to be part of an amazing group of women who encouraged and paved the way for me to get here. It’s fulfilling to have passengers with happy smiles and gratitude after a flight. I am just an example of what others can achieve. Maybe the African skies will be filled with hot air balloons one day, flown by women and men who dared to be different.”
Captain Smiles says she has been met with nothing but kindness from others in the field.
“I am lucky to work in an environment where people come for holiday. Kenya has an inherent warmth that is welcoming to everyone and gives comfort and a sense of being home away from home. Everyone, from my colleagues to my passengers, have embraced me with love, support, and encouragement from day one.”
What’s next for Captain Smiles? She has several projects in the works.
“I am currently building a Virtual Tourist Information Hub for Maasai Mara—a platform that will have information about the Mara, its environs, and places to stay. This will be for all people who would like to visit Maasai Mara and keep in touch with the wild.”
“I am also collaborating with a clothing company and another Kenyan designer to create affordable, cool safari outfits inspired by my safari lifestyle. It’s completely made in Kenya and currently in production. We hope to launch in June, just in time for the Great Migration. People will be able to slay on safari!”
“I have an initiative I started on my 27th birthday. Instead of a birthday party, the funds go towards supplying sanitary pads to school girls and purchasing panties for women inmates in prisons.”
Captain Smiles invites everyone to come visit her in Maasai Mara and share the beautiful Kenyan skies with her.
“When is Travel Noire coming to fly with me? To anyone reading this, come fly with me! It is so much more magical here. When you come, if you see a hot air balloon in the sky, follow it. The balloon community is very welcoming. Before you know it, you will be feeling the freedom of flying high in the sky above.”