Pilots take to skies in morning flight

Published 12:54 am Saturday, October 18, 2014

A hot air balloon flies during Friday morning’s media flight of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

A hot air balloon flies during Friday morning’s media flight of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Ballooning is at its core the kind of travel technology a Luddite could embrace.

It doesn’t require more than an envelope, a gondola and a heat source, and the laws of physics — hot air creating lift — takes care of the rest.

But even though hot-air balloons operate on the same principles as they did with the first manned flight in the 1780s, technology can still play a role in the lives of pilots.

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Mike Hanson of Indianola has been ballooning for 25 years, and has attended the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race for nearly as long.

In Hanson’s first years of flying, navigation was decidedly low-tech.

“When I started out, you did it with maps, a compass and your eyes,” he said.

Later, global positioning systems came along and helped pilots and balloon chase crews alike know exactly where they were.

But when Hanson left the ground in front of Alcorn State University’s Natchez campus Friday morning and flew toward the Hardy-Anders Field airport in the northern end of Adams County, his electronic aide was a step better than GPS.

Glancing down at a tablet computer, Hanson could see where he was  — and where he was going — on a map illustrated with aerial photos, showing him landmarks below and even some he couldn’t yet see ahead.

“This app gives my truck my flight path through Google maps, and I can use it to navigate and find places to take off and good landing spots,” he said.

But even with technology to aid him in planning his course, steering a balloon is still a low-tech process.

As Hanson approached the airfield and the target at which he was supposed  to throw a beanbag, he would alternate burning fuel to rise and pulling an exhaust rope to let hot air out of the balloon to let it sink.

“You are never quite sure of where you will land because the wind carries you,” he said.

“I use altitude to steer. Today, if I go down, the wind will move me a little to the left, but if I go up to another level it will move me to the right, so I sort of tack the balloon the same way you would a sailboat.”

But no matter if he’s trying to steer left, right or using maps or computers, there’s one thing that keeps bringing Hanson back to the balloon.

Sweeping his arm toward the vista over the Natchez Trace parkway, he said the view from 400 feet was his best reason for flying.

“Look at all this,” he said. “It’s beautiful. That’s why I do this.”

A competition balloon flight is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. today, while an afternoon flight is planned for approximately 4:30 p.m.

To know where and when balloons will fly, sign up for a free text alert service that will send you balloon flight information all weekend.

Visit natchezdemocrat.com to sign up for the free updates to be sent to your cell phone.