Pilots play ring toss

Published 12:04 am Sunday, October 16, 2011

Julie Cooper | The Natchez Democrat Bill Bussey of Longview, Texas, places his ring on the pole behind the Natchez Mall Saturday. Bussey was the only pilot successfully ring the pole.

Natchez — More than 200 spectators witnessed more than just a balloon flight early Saturday morning behind the Natchez Mall.

The crowd — one of the largest to gather in one place for a morning race in several years — played audience to a little accidental aerial roughhousing, a lot of competitive spirit and some spectacularly skilled ballooning.

Great Mississippi River Balloon Race fans who witnessed numerous attempts on the target behind the mall never lost attention and walked away saying the flight was the best they had ever seen.

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“They looked like they were dancing up there,” said Pattie Bush of Laurel.

Bush, a 10-12 year veteran of the Natchez race, said Saturday morning’s competition was one of the most exciting she has seen.

Many of the 58 pilots in the morning flight took off near the Adams County Port or along Providence Road.

The pilots were given a four-part task that involved throwing beanbags at four corresponding triangular targets set up behind the mall without tossing two bags on one target.

A yellow bag was to be thrown at a maximum distance target, a navy at a minimum and a red for the closest to a pole at the center of the targets.

The pilots were also challenged to toss a plastic ring approximately a foot in diameter onto the pole for a chance at a $500 prize.

Dr. Bill Bussey was the only pilot to fling his ring onto the pole — but his technique involved flying close enough to reach out and grab the pole, then simply placing the ring over it.

Bussey said the great weather conditions for the flight provided good steering, and his strategy was to keep looping the pole until he could get a good shot.

“I was actually concerned I was going to run out of fuel,” he said.

Bussey was one of several pilots to take advantage of different wind directions at different heights — a ballooning move called the box — to make repeated attempts on the target.

Bussey and Texas pilot Westly Gibson spent nearly an hour over the target and in clear view for the excited crowd.

After one pass at the target, Gibson climbed high in the air — and momentarily out of the minds of spectators — before diving straight back down, shocking fans and hovering less than 10 feet from the ground for minutes on end.

After Gibson’s last pass, Bussey delighted the crowd with his own success.

Bussey, a dentist from Longview, Texas, has won four pole challenges in his 34 years as a pilot.

Bussey’s brother, Bruce, tossed his ring that barely missed and bounced off the pole. Bruce said he and his brother definitely have sibling rivalry when it comes to ballooning.

“We’re always trying to bump each other away from the targets,” he said with a laugh.