Pilots squeeze in practice run Thursday afternoon

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003

While the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race does not officially take off until today, some of the brightly colored, dome-shaped masses did float through the skies of the Miss-Lou Thursday afternoon.

Some balloonists took some test flights or fun flights Thursday with the good afternoon weather, also without the competition and traffic of other balloons in the way.

Charles and Norma Venable, veterans of the Natchez race since its inception &045; save one year &045; headed out Thursday to put their balloon in the sky.

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It has been 20 years of flying for this duo, who started when they crewed a balloon once and then took lessons, and the rest is history.

&uot;We took a first ride and they didn’t tell us it was habit forming,&uot; Charles Venable said.

With such a &uot;fair-weather sport&uot; for a hobby, the Venables took their chance to get in the air Thursday since the forecast was calling for a slight rain after midnight, early Friday and high winds for the weekend.

&uot;You couldn’t have any better weather than this right now,&uot; Charles said of the 4 p.m. conditions.

After a 13-hour trip from Neosho, Mo., the Venables finally located their crew of Maria and Trisha Lambert and headed down U.S. 84.

After a long ride and a few turnarounds, the crew stopped in a field in Frogmore.

Charles waited for the winds to calm and then began unloading.

Looking surely like professionals, the Venables pulled on their gloves and began unloading the basket, the fan and then the balloon.

Twisting and tilting, unraveling and unfolding, step by step they made the process look easy.

As the fan began to blow the balloon out across the field, dwarfing the Venables and the Lamberts in its shadow, the takeoff ensued as the once nicely folded material produced a larger than life mass of color in the field.

When all was said and done, Charles and Trisha took off above the treeline as Norma and Maria packed up behind and began &uot;the chase.&uot;

After losing communication several times and wandering through unfamiliar territory, the team was finally reunited in a cotton field, now devoid of the white, fluffy substance, somewhere in Concordia Parish.

Whether the weekend allows flights or not, the Venables got up Thursday and enjoyed Natchez, not only for the ballooning but as their mini-vacation.

&uot;It’s just a neat area with very nice people,&uot; Norma said.