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Take flight with a balloon crew

NATCHEZ — Approximately 150 people huddled around the Natchez Visitor Center at 6 a.m. Friday — all of them waiting for balloon flights to begin.

Some of the people, including crewmembers, had already begun to drink their morning coffee and eat hot doughnuts.

They awaited instructions from their respective pilots, who were in a meeting under a white tent.

As the meeting concluded, the 25 pilots walked to their respective cars where their balloon equipment.

Jason Gaines, 46, a pilot from O’Fallon, Missouri, has 21 years of experience being a balloon pilot, he said. This year is his 13th year participating in the Natchez Balloon Festival.

Gaines drove his six-member crew and to Morgantown Middle School in Natchez — the launch location.

Cars parked in the soccer field, where all 25 hot-air balloons were launched on Friday morning. Tommy Rachel’s balloon was the first to begin its ascent into the sky.

Once Rachel’s balloon was up, Gaines and his crewmembers filled their balloon with cold air from a fan directed into the “envelope,” which is the balloon itself.

Gaines then blew fire into the envelope from two burners on top of a wooden basket. Inside the basket were two propane tanks used to heat up the balloon.

Once Gaines’ balloon was ready, he and his passengers, including Larry Stevens of Battle Creek, Michigan, hopped into the basket. The five other crewmembers helped the balloon get off the ground and into the air.

Gaines’ balloon was the sixth balloon to launch.

From the balloon, passengers can see all of Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday. One of the greatest views from the basket was of the Mississippi River near the bridge, which connects Natchez and Vidalia. One of the balloons hovered close to the river but never touched the water.

Gaines tossed a beanbag towards a target in a grassy field, and it landed about 100 feet away from the target.

In the end, Gaines’ balloon landed safely without error after a flight that lasted approximately 30 minutes.