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Balloons take flight Friday morning at Great Mississippi River Balloon Race lifts off

NATCHEZ — As smiling faces and waving children looked on, 26 balloons took to the sky Friday morning to kick off the 33rd Annual Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

For Dale Greenwell of Biloxi, the race was his first opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon. Greenwell, a retired U.S. Army specialist and author of the World War II book “The Greatest American,” said riding in the POW/MIA balloon was one of the best experiences of his life.

“This completes my bucket list,” Greenwell said. “I’ll have to look for new things. I’ve jumped out of planes, scuba-dived at 137 feet and skied mountains. This was fantastic. Everyone should do this. What you see at 500 feet, I guarantee you will have a better interest and a better view of Natchez.”

The race also was the first balloon flight for Kathy Crabtree of Norman, Oklahoma.

“It surprised me how peaceful it was,” Crabtree said. “Going over the Mississippi River was amazing.”

Sally Lupton, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, travels to Natchez for the event almost every year since 1989, she said.

The race has many draws that set it apart from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Lupton said.

“I’ve been coming forever,” Lupton said. “It’s completely different scenery. They don’t have rivers to fly over, and there are friends I only see once a year.”

Jason Gaines, of St. Louis, took his 11th flight in the Mississippi River Balloon Race. Gaines said he flies 18 races a year, and the Natchez event is one of his favorites.

“It’s a pretty area with the river and the bridge, but half the reason I come is the people I’ve met over the years,” Gaines said.

The winds and rain Natchez felt earlier this stepped aside for the festival’s first day and race director, Curtis Moroney, said Friday morning offer great racing weather.

“It was a gorgeous day,” Moroney said. “We had a really good flight. The wind was light and the southerly flow became a westerly flow; that’s part of ballooning.”

The hare-and-hound race, which has a target for pilots to try to hit from their balloon with a sandbag, produced no winner Friday morning due to technical difficulties.

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