Getting Carried Away

Published 1:45 pm Sunday, October 17, 2021

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By Jennie Guido

It’s the weekend we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the third weekend in October, and another Balloon Race is here. For over thirty years, this particular weekend in Natchez is when people plan to visit, Natchezians plan to stay in town, and locals that have moved away come back home. For the pilots that come for the races, this is the last festival of the year and lets them kick back and enjoy town.

The pilots that come back to town year after year have found a second home in Natchez. They come to town with their balloon, basket, and maybe a crew member or two; and once they get here, their Natchez family comes out to support them and have a little fun, too.

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One pilot from St. Louis, Missouri, Jason Gaines of St. Louis Ballooning Adventures, has been a festival regular since 2008. He shared, “Since coming to The Great Mississippi Balloon Race by accident in 2008, it has been in my top places to return to every year. The flying area is gorgeous, the town is so historic and quaint with lots to do, and the people I’ve met along the way who live here are happy to see us when we’re in town.”

In a way, Natchez is a reunion for these pilots. Not every hot air balloonist travels to every festival around the country. However, Natchez seems to be a common meeting place for many. “Some of these pilots I see only once a year, and it’s in Natchez,” he added. “It’s a meeting of the minds you could say. As an out-of-town balloonist, it has everything I look for when I travel the country flying in events. Oh, and the stories. Some of my best stories come from Natchez. A lot of which I can’t share in public places.”

Another St. Louis native, Kurt Vitense of Velocity Ballooning, feels the same way about coming to Natchez. “I started coming to Natchez several years back, not really knowing what to expect. From the first day in town back then, I was extremely impressed, and by the end of that first balloon festival weekend, I knew the Natchez annual balloon festival would become one of my favorites,” he said.

Kurt and his wife, Kimberely, have recently purchased a home in Natchez that they visit often. “We purchased a home downtown and have spent several months living here already this year. We’re committed to this community as active members now and for the foreseeable future,” Kurt shared.

“I have made some of my best friends that have become family here. The relationships, the hospitality, the weather, and oh, did I mention the balloon flying? It’s all just been amazing! The mighty Mississippi River, the historic downtown bluff, the iconic Natchez/Vidalia Bridge, Giles Island, and the lakes just over the state line have all contributed to Natchez becoming my favorite place to fly hot air balloons.”

Karen Kent of Port Allen, Louisiana, comes to Natchez for more than just October’s race weekend. “I have been flying in the Natchez balloon event for about 20 years. Over that time, I have met many new friends (local Natchez folks). A few of them are on their way to become pilots themselves,” she shared.

“Natchez has become a great place to stop in along the way anytime I am headed north. The terrain is just a bit different from my normal flying area around Baton Rouge and Zachary, Louisiana, where we don’t really have hills.”

Greenwood, Mississippi’s Mike Hanson explained, “Natchez has become a yearly tradition for us to close out the flying season. I have attended the event for the past 30 years, and I look forward to many more.”

Between the friends and weekend of activities, he said, “I love flying over the mighty Mississippi, slow walks on the bluff, and enjoying good food and drinks from Fat Mama’s is always a plus.”

Longtime pilot during our annual races, Tupelo’s Frank Anger comes back for the views, visits, and more. “I love these home state events, especially overlooking the Mississippi River,” Frank shared. “There is so much history here, and I learn something new every visit.

“The crowds are large and friendly, and the event staff takes great care of us. The mystique of going to the cemetery and paying a visit to the Turning Angel is always a highlight for me.” He also added, “Greg Iles is always welcome for a balloon ride in America!”

None of these pilots plan on missing a festival weekend in Natchez anytime soon. Jason even said, “When my fiancé and I were picking a wedding date, she had the dates of the third weekend in October as a possible date. I said nope, not happening. I’m not missing the Natchez Balloon Festival.”