Luck, wind only friends in balloon race

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2000

One weekend a year in Natchez, there is a race that doesn’t begin with &uot;On your mark, get set, go!&uot;

A more appropriate start for the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, perhaps, would be &uot;Up, up and away!&uot;

Sometimes lost in the busy celebrations surrounding the weekend are the actual events in the race – events that require a great deal of skill and an even greater deal of luck, according to crew coordinator Sally Durkin.

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&uot;Everything pretty much depends on the wind,&uot; she said. &uot;But you have to use the wind to your favor.&uot;

Because of the the sport’s dependence on the fickle wind, balloon races are generally task-based, Durkin said.

The first event – the Bicycle Biathlon – is planned for 7:30 a.m. Friday. All times are subject to change, Durking added, depending on the strength and direction of the wind.

In the biathlon, a bicyclist will ride with a pilot in the balloon to a pre-determined spot and then race back on the bicycle to the Natchez Visitor’s Center.

Saturday’s morning event (scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m.) is the Mass Ascension, an event that balloon racer Stephen Guido looks forward to every year.

&uot;I like the feeling of being in the air with a bunch of balloons at the same time,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s so pretty.&uot;

All of the balloons in the event take off from the same place at the same time – a fantastic sight, Durkin said. But exact locations and times must be made on Saturday to match current weather conditions, she added.

The task associated with this event will also be dependent upon the wind, Durkin said. A common task is for pilots to locate large targets and drop bean-bag markers near a giant &uot;X,&uot; she said.

&uot;We’ve had some guys able to fly two feet above the target and set the bag down right at the center of the ‘X,’&uot; she said. &uot;But that depends on the wind. Wind and luck.&uot;

Wind and luck are prerequisites for the the event’s most difficult event – the Barge Drop.

Pilots must maneuver their balloons over a barge in the Mississippi River and drop markers at a target on the moving vessel. The event is planned for 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

&uot;It’s constantly moving in the river, and you have the wind blowing everywhere down there,&uot; Guido said. &uot;It’s my favorite event.&uot;

Pilots usually try to fly as low as possible to hit the target, but they must keep an eye on the bluffs on the Natchez bank and the bridge, Durkin said.

&uot;There are some safety concerns,&uot; Guido said. &uot;The bluffs can redirect the wind and change the currents. You have to be careful you stay away from the things you need to stay away from.&uot;

Sunday’s event will be another task, Durkin said, possibly an event known as Hare and Hound, in which a volunteer pilot leaves early and places a target &uot;X&uot; where he lands.

The contestants then chase the &uot;hare&uot; and try to drop markers on the target, Durkin said.