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Jones ending career where he began

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Pilot Steve Jones prepares his Pop-A-Bud hot-air balloon for flight Saturday afternoon in a field on Providence Road. Jones, who lives in Brookhaven, is retiring after 14 years of flying the balloon.

NATCHEZ — A deep look of concern quickly flew off the face of Steve Jones as he watched one of the last helium balloons he will ever release float away in the right direction.

“Either way, it’s going to be a beautiful afternoon for a flight over the Mississippi River,” Jones said laughing as he and his crew began unpacking the Budweiser balloon he’s flown for 14 years. “Natchez was my first race, and it’s going to be my last race.”

Jones said the decision to retire from ballooning was one that didn’t come easy, but also something he knew was going to happen eventually.

“I just thought it was time to finally retire, and when I knew I was retiring, I knew my last flight had to be in Natchez,” Jones said. “It just couldn’t have been anywhere else.”

No stranger to the Natchez area, Jones, who currently lives in Brookhaven, worked at Morgantown School climbing the ranks all the way up to assistant principal before taking a position with BellSouth in 1991.

“We landed at Morgantown Friday, and the place I landed wasn’t but 20 feet from the office where I used to work,” Jones said. “This area has so many memories like that around here that I’m going to miss.”

And even during his time in Natchez seeing the colorful orbs floating through the sky on balloon race weekends, it wasn’t until 1998 that Jones said he agreed to consider flying.

“I had a friend at Southwest Distributors who said, ‘I’m thinking about buying a balloon, and I need a pilot,’” Jones said. “For a while there I said, ‘No thanks’ until he called me back in 1998 and asked ‘How would you like to have your own balloon?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’”

After getting his pilot’s license and training on a different balloon, Jones took up the Pop-A-Bud balloon for the first time during the 1998 Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in Natchez.

And the rest, as he says, is history.

“I’ve flown in plenty of other places, but there’s still nothing like Natchez,” Jones said. “It’s one of the most difficult places to fly, but also the most beautiful.

“You just can’t beat the beauty of the bluffs and the river.”

Looking back on his 14-year balloon-flying career, Jones said he would always cherish the friendships and memories he’s made throughout the numerous flights across the country.

“It’s been a good flight,” Jones said. “It just wouldn’t have been right if I didn’t fly for the last time here in Natchez.

“This was my first race, and it will be my last race.”