‘Suspended silently’: Balloon flight proves peaceful for first-timer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 21, 2000

&uot;Are you flying with me?&uot; It’s just before sunup on the first day of the Great Mississippi Balloon Race and Stephen Guido’s pseudoinvitation takes me off-guard.

Nodding sleepily, I pull a frigid hand from my windbreaker to shake his. &uot;OK.&uot;

Guido, I soon learn, is a Natchez businessman and has been ballooning for about five years — five years longer than myself.

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Minutes later we are bumping along the narrow road leading north to the launch site — the small trailer containing the balloon behind — and Guido is prepping me for my first balloon ride.

Since arriving in Natchez four months ago, I’ve heard much about the balloon race. So much, in fact, that I’ve hummed The Fifth Dimension’s &uot;My Beautiful Balloon&uot; for three straight days.

But nothing could have prepared me for one of the most memorable experiences of a lifetime.

After overcoming the initial shock of seeing the small wicker basket that would soon be cradling me thousands of feet above the Mississippi River, I am put to work as one of the Guido family crew.

Our star-spangled balloon is now one of dozens spread over the dew-soaked field overlooking the bluffs.

Rules for the morning’s &uot;hare and hound&uot; competition state we must wait until the lead balloon (the hare) takes off before filling our own balloons.

Up and down the bluff, fans begin their low hum as they fill the balloons’ envelopes with cold air. I stand close by, watching the herd of brightly-colored balloons lift their bulbous heads toward the sky.

&uot;You ready?&uot; Guido asks as I turn to see the basket being tugged along the wet grass. A quick hoist from the ground crew and up, up and away!

Shots of hot air produced by the propane burner lift the balloon at an astonishing rate and soon we are part of a floating caravan.

I had come prepared for the colder air and wind gusts of higher altitudes, but the heat of the propane flame forced me from my windbreaker.

And Guido explained we would not feel the wind because we were travelling with it, at the same speed and direction.

I realize then the lure of ballooning. To be held, suspended silently by an enormous pocket of warm sky, is peaceful almost to the point of comfort.

&uot;I guess it can get boring,&uot; Guido says after we’ve crisscrossed the river and hovered above the dome of Longwood for a little more than an hour.

I assure him my silence is not caused by boredom, but awe. I feel it necessary to take in as much as my senses will allow; who knows if I will ever have the opportunity again?

After a smooth landing (thanks to chase crews and my experienced pilot) and a champagne toast, my feet are back on solid ground — for now.

April Wortham is a staff writer at The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3540 or by e-mail at april.wortham@natchezdemocrat.com