Give them a hand: Crews vital to getting balloons flying high

Published 12:01 am Friday, October 19, 2018


NATCHEZ — While only a few people fit into the basket of a typical hot-air balloon, pilots in this weekend’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race say it takes many more ground crew members for a balloon to take flight.

For pilots the familiarity that comes from years of working with their voluntary crews often develops long-lasting friendships and even creates special moments, said longtime pilot Robert Lupton from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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“We’ve done a lot of balloon races in different places, but this is the only one we come back to every year, and it is because of the people,” Lupton said.

Lupton and his wife, Sally, have been a part of the Natchez balloon race for more than a quarter of a century, he said.

Over that time period, they’ve introduced six different balloons to the Miss-Lou sky, including the memorable Lady Jester balloon they added to their collection nearly a decade ago.

The craft weighs approximately 1,000 pounds altogether, Lupton said, and takes extra hands to get it airborne.

“You can’t fly without the crew,” Lupton said. “You have to have people who know how to assemble it … and if there’s a problem, you have to know how to fix it.”

Lupton said he works closely with dozens of crewmembers across the country each year.

Those hands have helped him out of several binds, he said, from flat tires to rough terrains.

Hot-air balloons are steered using only the wind, which doesn’t always take pilot where he intends to go, Lupton said. That’s when a good crew comes in handy, he said.

“We’ve landed where we couldn’t drive and they’ve had to carry the 300-pound basket — tanks and all … probably a quarter of a mile.”

In Lupton’s earlier years of flying in the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, the balloon landed in a bean field near Anna’s Bottom, located north of Natchez — and crewmembers Braxton Hobdy and his — at the time — 8-year-old son, Tate, spent until the next morning trying to find them, he said.

“Braxton and Tate finally found us at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” Lupton said. “We were getting ready to camp out there.”

Nearly 30 years later, the grown Tate Hobdy was married to his wife, Abby, by the same pilot he helped rescue.

“It just seemed like a good idea,” Hobdy said. “(The Luptons) have been our pilots for the last 30 years, so I’ve known them my whole life.”

Tate and Abby Hobdy celebrated their third anniversary Wednesday.

“When they first started the balloon race, they would assign you to a balloon, and Robert was the second person I was assigned to,” Hobdy said. “I’ve been crewing for him ever since. … They’re phenomenal. They’re just great folks in general, but they’re also good pilots who make sure their crew always has a good time.”

Hobdy now serves as a balloon race board member training new recruits to do what he has done nearly his whole life, including selecting launch spots, getting the balloons set up on site and chasing the balloon from the ground to meet the pilots at their landing points.

“All balloonists need good crews, and if people want to join a crew, they should,” Hobdy said. “It just takes people who are willing to put forth a good effort and want to have a good time ballooning. … Crewing is as much fun as flying.”

Hobdy said anyone interested in volunteering could show up during the crew and pilot briefings at the Natchez Visitor Center to receive instructions.