Pilot hooked the first time she rode balloon

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 16, 1999

For Nancy Rawls, being a hot-air balloon pilot is &uot;as close to being an angel as you can get and still be alive.&uot; So seven or eight times each year for the three years now, Rawls and her husband, Mike, have traveled around the state to take part in events like this weekend’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

The Ridgeland couple began ballooning 13 years ago when a friend asked Mike, an airplane pilot, to serve on a balloon crew with him in Canton. Nancy got to ride in the balloon – and was hooked.

&uot;As Mike says, ‘Ballooning is a highly contagious sport spread by casual contact,’&uot; Nancy said, laughing.

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The two began regularly serving on crews and three years ago got the 15 hours of flying experience and took the federal tests necessary to become pilots.

They have been flying in the Natchez race ever since.

On Saturday afternoon, Nancy and Mike gathered with their fellow pilots under a tent at the Natchez Visitors Reception Center to hear the latest weather reports and be briefed on a few races of the race.

&uot;With the winds the way they are … I’m not sure she’ll fly today,&uot;&160;Mike said, watching a child’s balloon sail first one way, then the other in the sky.

But they eventually decided to head to the west side of the river to take flight. Past Vidalia’s mat field and the West Bank Eatery, they drove down from the levee.

The first site they chose was too steep – once they inflated the balloon, it would have begun sliding down the hill. So they chose a more level site closer to the levee.

The Rawlses only brought one faithful crew member, Phyllis Spence of Jackson. Mike explained that the early hour of some flights – some as early as 5:30 a.m. – weeds out the uncommitted crew members.

&uot;It’s hard to get someone to come out and play at that hour,&uot;&160;Mike said.

So the Rawlses picked up two crew members on the spur of the moment – Jenelle Cabic, originally with the crew from Passman Orthopedic Clinic, and Brad Passman, who also would be Nancy’s passenger on the flight.

Jenelle, whose crew did not get to fly last year, said she will serve on balloon crews for years to come.

&uot;It’s so much fun to get together and to watch the balloons. It’s just indescribably beautiful,&uot;&160;Jenelle said, smiling from ear to ear as the Rawlses decided on a site.

But it is also a lot of work. It took Mike, Phyllis, Jenelle and Brad just to get the heavy balloon basket, laden with two tanks of propane, from the Rawlses’ trailer.

Then the balloon, colored red and purple with pink arrows pointing skyward, was rolled out.

At the bottom end, onto which the basket was already hooked, crew members held the balloon open with taut cords while a roaring fan blew 65,000 cubic feet of cold air into the structure.

Several minutes into the process, crew members watched as the balloon seemed to take on a moving, breathing life of its own, rolling slightly along the grass.

&uot;And this is a small balloon,&uot;&160;Mike said. &uot;Some can hold 90,000 or 100,000 cubic feet of air.&uot;

With the flight almost ready to begin, Nancy hopped into the basket and used a propane flame to heat the air inside the balloon. Even bystanders on the far side of the trailer can feel the heat.

Within seconds, the balloon rises from ground, Brad hops in beside Nancy, and crew members hand Nancy a map and radio.

Once she checks to see that her transmissions come in clear on the van’s radio, the crew lets go of the balloon – and it rises along with other multi-colored balloons, following the river south.

And with a few bursts of flame and a few currents of wind, Nancy revisits her &uot;heaven&uot;&160;once again.