SURPRISE! Susie B. West Elementary students receive surprise balloon visit

Published 4:54 pm Thursday, October 13, 2022

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NATCHEZ — A voice came on the intercom system at Susie B. West Elementary School at approximately 9 a.m. Thursday morning and said, “Students, we have a surprise for you.”

The voice was principal La’Toya Scott-Hammett, Ph.D.

Class by class, kindergarten through fourth-grade students walked out onto the playground to find the surprise, a turquoise hot air balloon with a pink, purple and green spiral pattern. Pilot Gary Whitby from Columbia, Missouri, who surprised students with the balloon visit, happens to be in Natchez for his fourth year participating in the Natchez Balloon Festival, he said. The festival starts Friday and lasts through Sunday.

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He invited students to get as close to the basket as they dared.

“Are you ready?” he asked them, while his co-pilot Curtis Maroney reached for the burners. “Don’t get scared now. I’ll count to three. One, two—”

Before he could get to three, Moroney pulled the lever on the burners and flames roared into the hot air balloon envelope. Some children’s mouths opened in awe and they watched the flames. Many more screamed and darted away from the basket as quickly as they could. Then, realizing it was safe, they ran back up to the basket, asking them to do it again.

“Does anyone have a question for me?” Whitby said, to which one student raised his hand and said, “If your head gets too close, wouldn’t it set your hair on fire?”

“Well, I still have hair, don’t I?” Whitby said with a smile.