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Morning race kicks off weekend balloon events

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Hot-air balloons, including pilot David Miller, at top, inflate and lift off for the first flight of the weekend from a grassy field off Carter Street in Vidalia early Friday morning.

NATCHEZ — Floating fast over the Mississippi River Friday morning, pilot Gary Odom of the balloon named Master Blaster looked down and saw something that allowed him to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.

“We’re going way too fast, but that balloon flying lower than us is perfect,” Odom said pointing down to a fellow pilot who was flying lower near the river. “If we can get those winds when we land, we’ll be good.”

Odom and about a dozen other pilots took to the skies bright and early Friday morning to kick off this year’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

For more photos from the weekend’s balloon race click here.

Wind direction and speeds in Natchez forced the pilots to cross over into Vidalia and lift off in a large opening behind the Sonic on Carter Street.

Two black helium balloons were released in the field at approximately 7:15 a.m. to help the pilots determine if wind conditions were safe for flying.

After Balloonmeister Bill Cunningham told the group he would soon be taking off to kick off the hare and the hound chase, Odom and his trusty crew chief and wife, Loree, decided the wind was just right to take up their 65,000 cubic feet balloon.

“Our No. 1 priority is always safety, and if we didn’t think it was safe to go up we wouldn’t go — end of story,” Gary said unwrapping the colorful envelope from its package. “As long as the winds are like this when we’re trying to land, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

And even as Gary continued surveying wind conditions by watching other balloons take off, he said Friday’s winds were nothing compared to some of the flights he’s got under his belt.

Gary is head of the department of professional aviation at Louisiana Tech University and holds 23 Federal Aviation Administration certificates and ratings along with more than 11,000 flight hours.

“I can fly just about anything, but balloons are just so different than anything else,” Gary said. “And it’s hard to beat the scenery you get to see here in Natchez.

“This is one of the races we enjoy the most out of all of them.”

Apart from the competitive aspect of flying in each race, Loree said it’s the people the couple meet on their ballooning adventures — particularly in Natchez — that keep them flying each year.

“There’s just something about the people in the balloon community where everyone is willing to help each other and everyone has some kind of interesting story,” Loree said. “And there really isn’t a better community that accepts ballooners than Natchez. Everyone is just so friendly.”

A welcoming community, Gary said, can make or break a flight — mainly during landing time.

“I’ve landed in a Southern Baptist preacher’s yard and had him come out to look in my ice chest to see if I had any alcohol,” Gary said laughing. “Everyone in Natchez seems to enjoy the balloons and for the most part they don’t mind you landing in their backyard.

“Obviously, we try to not intrude on their lives or leave a big mess, but it’s just nice to not have to worry about that as much here.”

And the Natchez community lived up to its reputation as Gary touched down on Cedar Lane, just off Morgantown Road, without any hassle from the residents — other than a few rubbernecks from the roadway.

“We’re always glad to show off the balloon to most people, but especially to the people whose yards we land in,” Gary said. “We like to have fun, and if we can give the folks on the ground a chance to see the balloons we’re certainly going to try.

“But it’s always funny to hear people say, ‘Please fly by my house’ because we’re really just at the mercy of the wind in a way.”

Gary, along with the other 63 pilots flying this year, will be hoping for cooperative winds as the race continues today and Sunday.

A 7:30 a.m. flight will kick off today’s festivities with festival gates at the Bicentennial Gardens opening at 11 a.m.

From 12:15 to 4:30 p.m. musical acts Lil Poochie & Hezekiah Early, The Revivalists and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes will provide on-site entertainment.

The 4:30 p.m. afternoon flight will wrap up today’s flying adventures, but bands including The Lowrider Band and North Mississippi Allstars will keep the party going past 9:30 p.m.

To keep up with where and when balloons will fly, visit www.natchezdemocrat.com/balloon-race-text-alerts to sign up for a free text or e-mail alert service.

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