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Only one pilot braves Sunday conditions as race comes to end

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — Festival-goers crowd around Bill Cunningham’s balloon Sunday afternoon as Karen Kent, far left, helps during the balloon inflation on the last day of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. Cunningham was the only pilot to fly Sunday.

NATCHEZ — A group of eight pilots huddled over an iPad Sunday afternoon on the bluff hoping to find the answer to one of the great ballooning questions: Where can we land?

And while those pilots were tracking coordinates and weather conditions, balloonmeister Bill Cunningham, was already gearing up his basket and unloading his envelope preparing to roll the dice on unstable wind conditions while country tunes played on the big stage.

For photos from the weekend’s race events check out the balloon race photo gallery.

“Whatever you want to do is up to you, but I’m flying,” Cunningham told the group of uneasy pilots before preparing to fly the last leg of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. “The pilots have to make their own decisions, but I’m going up.”

BEN HILLYER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Eight-year-old Lyden Bland scales the rock climbing wall on the festival grounds Sunday afternoon.

The pilots’ worries came after watching two small test helium balloons lift quickly into the air veering northwest into Concordia Parish and over Giles Island — a location several of the pilots didn’t want their chase crews going.

“It can be intimidating if you’re flying 2 mph because that could put you right over the island,” Cunningham said. “But if there’s any speed you shouldn’t worry about it because you’ll clear Giles Island.”

As each pilot slowly made up their minds not to lift off, the group made their way over to Cunningham’s balloon and began helping prepare for the flight.

With a crowd of onlookers surrounding his balloon, Cunningham made one last request — shouting to Natchez resident Curtis Moroney to accompany him in the basket — before taking off over the Mississippi River.

Anna Ezell, 7, of Wisner, La., stood clinging to the fence on the edge of the bluff watching the single colorful orb float into Concordia Parish.

“It’s so colorful!” Ezell shouted from her observation spot. “Is that the only one flying?

“I wish there were more.”

Ezell’s sentiments were most likely echoed throughout the Miss-Lou as Cunningham’s balloon was the only one to fly all day.

The 7:30 a.m. morning flight was cancelled because of high wind speeds that were estimated at 10 mph for landing areas.

But the flight cancellation wasn’t bad news for everyone, as one former crew member took the opportunity to corner each pilot one by one for her favorite part of balloon races.

“I get all the pilots to sign next to their balloons,” said Edna Green of Baton Rouge. “I didn’t get all of them this year, but I tried.”

When she travels with family members, who go to different races and offer their assistance to crew for various pilots, Green always finds some piece of memorabilia to collect on the trip.

“It’s just fun,” Green said. “I think I’ve only gotten all the pilots signatures one year because usually there’s somebody not there or they left earlier.

“But I always try every year.”