Crew member finally gets chance to fly

Published 1:01 am Monday, October 18, 2010

Natchez — Though pilots and their colorful balloons got all the attention this weekend, no flight would be possible without the crew.

For the past two years, Darryl Wilkinson has been one of those crew members, quietly waiting for his time to soar with the balloons.

When The Dart landed on Shadow Lane in Natchez, Wilkinson was ready for his first shot at leaving the ground and letting the wind take him where it pleases.

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“Hot-air balloons are unique,” he said. “It is not something you see every day.”

Wilkinson has lived in Natchez for the past 20 years, and the last seven of those he has spent working as the head of maintenance for Natchez Regional Medical Center, where he first got the opportunity to help with the balloon race festivities.

“The hospital sponsors a balloon every year,” he said. “They also have a contest at the hospital where they give away a free ride every year. I have not won that so I have managed to get by through crewing.”

Before working in maintenance, Wilkinson said he use to work offshore, and that is where his love of being off of the ground first began.

“We used to have to take helicopter flights to get offshore,” he said. “That was the only part of the job I looked forward to.”

Wilkinson said he has been to the races 10 to 15 times over the course of his time in Natchez.

“It is fun and neat and just a great experience,” he said.

While he has always wanted to fly, volunteering to crew for the event has been something Wilkinson said he has thoroughly enjoyed.

“Unloading the balloon and setting everything up and being there for the set up is part of the process,” he said.

Wilkinson said the one thing he does want out of the race weekend would be something most race watchers want.

“I just want to fly,” he said.

Flying in a hot-air balloon is a different experience, Wilkinson said.

“Everything is left up to the wind,” he said. “Helicopters and planes are mechanical things, balloons are just you and the wind.”

Once again this year, Wilkinson lent his services to a pilot to help crew, and he hopes this year will bring him closer to floating with the wind.

“I’m going to fly this year,” he said. “I will do whatever I can to go up with the balloons,” he said Thursday before the races began.

Wilkinson did fly this weekend, and said it was just as amazing as he expected.

“I got to fly Friday morning with Sam Edwards, form Lakeway, Texas,” he said. “ It was awesome.”

Wilkinson said he wished his flight was longer, but can’t wait to ride again.

“I will be back next year,” he said. “And hopefully, I can fly again.”