First-person account: Up, up and away for balloon race

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 21, 2018

The 33rd Annual Great Mississippi Balloon Race was not just my first time to experience the event, but it also was my first time to fly in a hot-air balloon.

I had the opportunity Friday to fly aboard the Elleo Star, piloted by Gary Whitby of Columbia, Missouri, who owns a Pepperidge Farm distribution facility.

Just as Gary and many of us have held those delicious little Goldfish in our hands, now Gary held my life in his hands.

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Strangely enough, riding in a balloon with a businessman at the helm was one of the most relaxing and least turbulent flights I’ve ever experienced.

From 500 feet above the ground with nothing but a basket below my feet, the feeling is serene. The view is a stark contrast to the Natchez I’ve seen walking through downtown streets. On the ground it’s easy to forget how close I am to so much greenery.

Our flight took us from U.S. 61 westward across the Mississippi River and into Ferriday. Gary and I talked about Natchez as we peered over the edge of the basket and gazed into the swampy waters looking for alligators.

It was Gary’s first time to participate in the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in Natchez, but it turns out Gary is a big fan novelist Greg Iles of Natchez, and Gary wanted to come here to see some of the sites mentioned in Iles’ novels.

As we neared a field of settled balloons, Gary lowered our altitude and set track for an open farmland, landing with only one slight jolt as we took our first hit on the tilled dirt. As Gary said, any flight you can walk away from is a good flight.

The flight was an hour or less, and it was over too soon. Yet, a celebration was still to be held for the end of a successful flight. Gary and the crew toasted with champagne, but not before ceremoniously covering the baldhead of this first-time flier with blades of grass and then dousing it with champagne.

“Only the best $5 champagne,” Gary said as he held up a bottle of Korbel, smiling.

Gene Coleman is a reporter for The Natchez Democrat. Reach him at 601-445-3620 or