Officials: Blue skies were deceiving

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, November 3, 2015

NATCHEZ — If hot-air balloons had lifted off two days out of the three-day Great Mississippi River Balloon Race last month, chances are high pilots and spectators could have been blown away — literally.

While the forecast showed blue skies and sunshine, meteorologist Ernest Ethridge said heavy winds were brewing above.

“Unfortunately, we got bit bad by the bite of Mother Nature,” said Ethridge, a retired National Weather Service meteorologist who travels to Natchez each year to provide weather predictions before balloon flights. “What prevented us from flying was strong winds, and strong winds alone.”

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Ethridge said at approximately 500 feet above surface ground — an area where balloons often sail — high winds were prevalent both days.

Once winds reach 15 knots at 500 feet, Ethridge said it becomes difficult for pilots to maintain control of their balloons.

By the time pilots would have reached 400 feet Saturday, winds were reaching 24 knots, Ethridge said.

“It was for the benefit and safety of all that we didn’t fly,” he said.

Click here for video of high winds at Wisconsin balloon festival.

Jason Gaines, a balloonist from St. Louis who travels to Natchez every year for the race, has seen firsthand the dangerous consequences of mixing balloons with high winds.

While at the Waterford Balloonfest in Wisconsin this past July, Gaines’ balloon — although grounded — caught a large gust of wind, causing it to spontaneously inflate.

Another balloon at the festival had a worst outcome, Gaines said.

While tethered to the ground, the balloon lifted off the ground due to high winds — dragging an SUV along with it and taking out a few nearby tents.

No one was injured in the incident, Gaines said.

“You just don’t want to deal with Mother Nature when it can be dangerous,” he said.

Gaines said Natchez balloon race organizers made the right call last month when they decided not to fly.

“Although it appears to be a nice sunny day, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to fly,” he said.

Mimi Miller — executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, which hosts the balloon race — said it’s rare that balloons are able to lift off at every scheduled race during the weekend.

“The balloonists hate it, and we hate it too,” she said. “It’s a great disappointment.”

Historically, October is the driest month of the year, Miller said, and that’s why the race is always held the third weekend in October.

Because the balloon race entails several events along the bluff, Miller said winds are favored over rain.

Also, temperatures are the most mild in October, she said.

“October has been a great month for us,” Miller said. “We would much rather have a little bit of wind than rain.”

Because of the month’s ideal temperature and low precipitation chances, Miller said she doesn’t foresee the foundation changing the race’s date anytime soon.

“I don’t think we would be improving our situation at all if we moved the race,” she said.

And even though spectators didn’t get to see the colorful orbs dot the Miss-Lou sky two days out of the three-day race, Gaines said the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race remains his favorite race of the whole year.

“I look forward to it all year,” he said. “It’s my favorite event.”