Some fly for cause, not points

Published 12:05 am Sunday, October 21, 2007

NATCHEZ — Amid a kaleidoscope of brilliant hues, the only black balloon might not be the most colorful, but to Wynn “Gus” Gustafson, it’s one of the most important.

The black balloon with a white and gold eagle is meant to raise awareness of prisoners of war and military servicemen missing in action.

To the soft-spoken pilot, the races are less about winning and more about remembrance.

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“It’s flown primarily as an education tool,” Gustafson said. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s still going on, we still have men missing in action.”

When Gustafson flies the black balloon bearing the words POW-MIA, he often gets questions.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘What’s POW-MIA?’” he said.

Gustafson, who lives just outside St. Paul, Minn., got bitten by the balloon bug 30 years ago when his neighbor started flying and Gustafson joined a chase crew.

Three years later, he got his pilot’s license and flew on his own.

“One thing led to another,” he said. “Now, he hasn’t flown for years, and I’m still flying.”

And while Gustafson sometimes flies his own, more colorful balloon, he enjoys flying for the cause, too. Along with a handful of other volunteers, he pilots the black Freedom Flight at balloon festivals across the country.

But he hopes one day to never fly the balloon again.

“We always say that when all the men come home, we’ll stop flying Freedom Flight,” he said. “Until then, we’ll fly to raise awareness.”

Local chapters of Veterans of Foreign Wars sponsor the balloon.

The same half-dozen members of the Natchez chapter have served along with the pilot’s family as Gustafson’s balloon race chase crew since he started flying in the Miss-Lou race 14 years ago.

Vidalia residents Vickie Stowers and her husband, Jerry, serve as crewmembers every year.

“There’s still POWs and MIAs missing from all the wars,” Vickie Stowers said. “It just keeps awareness of that fact so they’re not forgotten.”

As most crews do, after the balloon returns to earth, they toast a safe landing and future flights.

But there’s one extra step for the Freedom Flight crew.

They toast to grounding the black balloon.