2017 balloon race: Youngest pilot ready for challenge

Published 12:31 am Sunday, October 22, 2017


NATCHEZ — Josh Goll says he has loved hot-air balloons and the community surrounding them for 27 years — since he was just a few months old.

Goll, the youngest pilot at the 2017 Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, said he has loved the balloon glow at night and watching balloonists ascend since his parents, Mary and Scooter Goll, moved to Longview, Texas.

Email newsletter signup

At age 11, Goll began working on crews with balloonists.

Back then, Goll said he remembers thinking, “This is the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to have one of these one day.”

Just two years ago, he received his pilot’s license. Though he has flown in several races around the South, this was his first flight in Natchez.

Goll is careful; he began checking the weather and wind speed repeatedly as soon as he arrived at Duncan Golf Course Saturday morning.

He and his crew moved three times before finding the perfect place to take off, all while Goll kept a diligent eye on the skies above.

Cautious as Goll is, his college fraternity brother and crew member Derek Diggs said he has rarely seen Goll step down from a challenge.

“I didn’t come to Natchez to miss the target,” Goll said. “We’re going to go for it.”

His balloon, Star Stepper, features emblems of his Texas upbringing, with a few lone stars brandished along the red and blue curves.

With crew members Joey and Amanda Norris helping, Goll wrangled the bucking balloon against the winds, which were higher than Goll wanted. When his wicker basket left the ground, Goll ascended with a leftward tilt, almost making an early landing in a nearby oak tree.

With a few blasts from the burner, however, Goll rose higher and sped away toward the river.

“He’s going over the target,” Joey Norris called from inside the Ford F150 that the crew drove. “That’s awesome.”

As Goll neared the Natchez Mall, however, a north wind caught and sped him just right of the target.

After crossing the Mississippi River, Goll set Star Stepper down in a field in Vidalia.

As he neared the ground, a crowd of people who saw him approach ran toward him, holding down the basket, ensuring a safe landing.

Goll did not know the people, he said; they were just there to help.

Though he had not gotten as close to the target as he would have liked, Goll said he enjoyed flying over the river.

“This, so far, is one of the best races I’ve been to,” Goll said. “I wish it’d been a little slower, but the people are so good to us.”

Goll said he could not wait to return to Natchez. Hopefully, next time he can bring his wife Cayla and their 1-year-old son, Brooks, he said.

Goll said he wants to pass his love of flying down to Brooks, though his wife fears her son will fly too early.

“Once he’s old enough, he’ll be crewing with me,” Goll said. “He’ll be licensed at 14.”

Brooks has not flown yet, but Goll said he knows his son will love it like he does.

“It’s different,” Goll said. “It’s unlike anything else in the world.”