Ohio pilot wins race for second time

Published 12:15 am Monday, October 17, 2011

With Curtis Moroney as passenger, left, Jim Birk, right, prepares to throw his yellow baggie to the target during Sunday morning’s race. (Ben Hillyer \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Jim Birk — the blue balloon with the big, red and white circles on it — won the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, but it was the pilot of another blue balloon who earned his stars.

West Gibson, 24, stole the show Saturday morning, and made a respectable showing Sunday as well, when he wowed the crowd with his flying skills in a solid blue balloon with white stars.

But few in the crowd realized Gibson had a great coach.

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The pilot, who flew alone, was in constant communication with his father, a long-time pilot, who was navigating via radio from the ground.

Kinnie Gibson — a stunt double for Chuck Norris — has been grounded from flight due to a hip injury.

Balloons squeeze in for position around the target at the Natchez Mall Sunday morning during the final event of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. (Ben Hillyer \ The Natchez Democrat)

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t participate in the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

And for the elder Gibson, watching his son steal the show may have been better than flying himself.

“He was terrifying when he was 2, now he’s terrifying them in the skies,” Kinnie said.

The father-son duo from Dallas, Texas, has been in flight together for most of West’s life, and they now operate a company that provides jet packs for air shows.

West said he learned everything he knows about ballooning from his dad.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher,” West said.

West finished seventh in the weekend race, but he was likely first in the minds of spectators.

And the crowd’s reaction is what West said he really likes about competition.

After hovering over the target for nearly an hour Saturday morning, West said he heard the audible gasp from the crowd when he tossed his ring at the pole — and then awes when he barely missed.

“It’s funny because you don’t even have watch because they’ll tell you,” he said laughing.

For Kinnie, West was certainly the winner.

“As a dad, you always dream about having something you can do with your son that you both can really enjoy,” Kinnie said. “It’s truly a blessing.”

The GMRBR wrapped up Sunday afternoon after an awards banquet for the pilots.

Two-time winner Birk said the great weather and a great crew were vital to his success.

“It always feels great,” Birk said. “I always enjoy coming to Natchez and flying, and I enjoy the people there and the reception they give pilots and balloonists, in general.”

Birk said Natchez is a fun place to fly, and he enjoys seeing the same people that come just about every year.

“All around, it’s just a fun weekend and good competition.”

Balloonmeister Bill Cunningham said at the awards ceremony that no one could have asked for better weather or more exciting winds for the crowd.

Cunningham received loud applause from the pilots when he asked the pilots what they thought about using the Natchez Mall as a primary target in years to come.

“We’re going to use that,” he said. “It seems to work good because we can get the crowd involved.”