Up, Up and Away

Published 12:05 am Sunday, October 16, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Cheryl Higdon holds Blake Evans, as hot-air balloons prepare to leave for their first flight Saturday morning in Natchez’s Industrial Park.

Natchez — No one drove away from Saturday afternoon’s balloon flight in a new 2011 Chevrolet Silverado — at least not unless it was the one they drove to the race.

The newest Great Mississippi River Balloon Race event — a key grab for the new wheels — was delayed by approximately an hour due to tricky winds.

Once balloons did launch, many were simply aiming to get in the air near the festival grounds to give the crowd a show, not make a go at the key.

JULIE COOPER | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT A group of balloons hovers over the target at the Natchez Mall Saturday morning. The balloons were so close together that several bumped into each other.

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Regardless, hundreds inside the festival grounds at the Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens and outside the gates along the bluff and the Vidalia Riverfront were excited.

“They’re over there, over there, over there and over there,” 3-year-old Kaden Houck said from his perch atop his father’s shoulders as he pointed to balloons in the sky.

Kaden’s parents, Mark and Vanessa Houck, brought the entire family to the races, both morning and afternoon flights.

Vanessa said the balloon race in Natchez was her family’s favorite weekend of the year. She said she enjoys the Saturday afternoon flight because she gets to watch the balloons from the bluff.

“I love watching them fly over the river,” she said.

Approximately a dozen balloons dotted the horizon on the bluff as more balloons popped up from several spots in Vidalia and at Natchez Under-the-Hill.

The key grab, which replaced the annual barge drop, was altered at the last minute when organizers opted to tie a pink ribbon to a small balloon that was connected to a larger balloon flying 100 feet in the air. Originally they had planned to tie the key to the top of a 50-foot pole.

Sally Durkin, the race’s public relations coordinator, said the committee replaced the pole idea with a helium balloon on a string last week to lower the sponsor’s insurance premium on the prize, satisfy Federal Aviation Administration regulations and ensure crowd safety.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Belinda Waldrop takes photographs with her cell phone, as hot-air balloons prepare to leave for their first flight Saturday morning in Natchez’s Industrial Park.

Suzanne Johnson and her husband, Don, traveled from Laurel to their first balloon race. Suzanne got her first look at a hot-air balloon Saturday.

“I’ve seen them on TV, but I’ve never seen them in person,” she said. “It’s beautiful, beautiful.”

At the end of Saturday’s events, the pilots in the top three spots were Tom Oberheide, Bill Bussey and Jim Birk.

The competition will end this morning with a 7 a.m. race.

Another flight, just for fun, is planned for 4 p.m. today.