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O#12: Natchez, Mississippi
OOctober 16, 2004

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god....

-- T. S. Eliot
"The Dry Salvages"

He must know sumpin'
He don't say nothin'

-- Oscar Hammerstein
"Ol' Man River"



Natchez Mississippi is located on bluff along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The first inhabitants of the area were the Natchez Indians, who built large earthen mounds there. The first nation to claim the territory was France, followed by England, Spain, and finally the United States. The area was well-suited to growing cotton, and many wealthy plantation owners built their mansions Natchez. Below the bluffs, Natchez "Under-the-Hill" was a bustling and sometimes lawless port of the riverboat trade.

Unlike many southern cities, Natchez was left almost untouched by Union forces during the War Between the States, and as a result, much of it's antebellum architecture is still intact. Many of the old mansions have been carefully restored by local groups and individual owners, and are open for tours during the "Pilgrimage" season in the spring and fall. Tourism centered around the historical sights and a riverboat casino are now important local industries.


Every year, Natchez hosts the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, which in 2004 was in its 19th year. I had the good fortune to be invited to the race by Cappy Stahlman, a member of the race's board of directors. Sally Durkin was saddled with the job of handling all the logistics for my flight.



I knew a few balloonists who had flown in the Natchez race, and was told by them that the river and the heavily forested areas along parts of the river made for challenging flying at times. Going over the registration materials sent to me by the race, I noticed that "rescue boat" and "rescue helicopter" were among the roles assigned to the local volunteers -- one of those things that is either reassuring or un-reassuring, depending on how you look at it.


I live a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, so the idea of a large river, even a mile-wide river, didn't sound all that big. However, seeing the Mississippi River, it was impossible not to be impressed. There was something almost hypnotic to the sight of all that water headed cross-country on some private business of its own; or as Eliot wrote:

...The brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities -- ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his reasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget...

I hoped the river was in a good mood for the balloon race.



I was scheduled to do the cluster balloon flight on Saturday afternoon. The hot-air balloons would be launching from various places, trying to overfly a barge in the river for competition, but I would be launching up on the bluff, where the festival spectators would be.

Sally had lined up a group of people who were in town for a class reunion to help. Also helping were employees and friends of La Fiesta Grande Mexican restaurant, who were sponsoring my hot-air balloon in the rally. There had been a bit of wind earlier, but things seemed to have calmed down when we began inflating balloons at 2 PM.













Theo, the FAA inspector assigned to the balloon race, helped inflate some of my balloons. It's a joke among pilots that the FAA guy always shows up claiming to be "here to help", but this time it seemed to be literally true -- I was quite impresssed.












Flying a balloon in the afternoon, you're generally hoping that the winds will calm down as you get closer to sunset. Unfortunately, as we finished inflating, the wind picked up again and began to bounce the balloons around and drag them on their sandbags. My crew chief Larry recruited spectators from the crowd to help hold the balloons down. I launched a pibals (small helium balloons used to test wind speed and direction) over the edge of the bluff, and saw some of them head down rather than up in a rotor wind at the cliff's edge. Not a good sign.

Eventually, the wind seemed to slow a bit, but it was still windier than when we'd started inflation, and every few minutes a gust would come through that would set the balloons to bouncing and twisting their strings.

I delayed as long as I could, but I didn't want to launch so late that I'd run out of daylight while trying to land. So at 4:30, I got into my harness and had crew attach all the balloons to me. The wind gusted a bit several times, and people had to grab me to keep me from dragging forward.

Bill Cunningham, the balloonmeister, and Sally offered me some last minute advice on where to try to fly to. In general, where there wasn't water there were a lot of trees. There were many places on the Louisiana side that were good to land, but there were also places where it would take all night to find me. On the other hand, if I could just head north up the river and come back onto the Mississippi side, I would eventually reach a farmed area called Anna's Bottom, where crew could easily reach me.

"God bless you, John," Cappy said. I smiled back and nodded, reflecting that it was a very worthwhile sentiment that up in Yankeeland we seem to reserve for moments of extreme emotion or when we sense something bad may be about to happen to someone. Bill got on the radio with the rescue boat and the spotting aircraft, and warned them I would be taking off soon.



I adjusted my ballast, allowing for enough extra lift so that I wouldn't be rotored down into the water, or so I supposed. I told Larry to hold onto my tether and follow me forward as I launched, in case anything seemed obviously wrong as I lifted off.

At my word, crew released me. The balloons pulled me smoothly up and forward. I immediately gave the thumbs up to Larry, and he let go of the tether. The crowd cheered as I sailed up off the bluff and out over the Mississippi.