The Mississippi River is exactly one mile wide where it marks the state line between Vidalia, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi. A single bridge crosses the river here. Vidalia, on the west bank, is an area of the country where cotton is still king with its wide expanse of flat agricultural fields. East across the river is Natchez, which like most of southern Mississippi features heavily wooded, rolling hills.
Founded in 1716 when the French established Fort Rosalie on a high bluff overlooking the river, Natchez quickly became an important river port. The city’s Golden era came in the 19th century prior to the Civil War when cotton made millionaires of local landowners. Vast plantations with their magnificent homes marked the era.
Although many fortunes were lost in the war, Natchez escaped major destruction and today more than 500 grand old antebellum homes and buildings can be found along the city streets. Twice each year (in the Spring and Fall) these magnificent homes are opened to the public for the Natchez Pilgrimage. While the Spring Pilgrimage features a confederate pageant with all its Old South grandeur, the fall pilgrimage is wrapped up by the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race which brings its own unique color and excitement to the region.
1995 marked the tenth anniversary of this prestigious event. It is the one event in the country that has no launch field, yet there is a long waiting list of pilots seeking invitations, even though the event has swelled to more than 70 balloons. There is only one rule that must never be broken-Do Not Touch the Water! Any pilot doing so will be invited to leave-never to be asked to return. Yes, it is a harsh rule, but the Mississippi flows downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico from here at a pace of at least nine miles per hour. This is not the place to do a splash and dash!
Natchez also offers a healthy dose of that deep down southern hospitality that made the US Nationals in Baton Rouge such a simmering success. From Fat Mama’s to The Landing to The Corner Bar , the living (not to mention eating and drinking) is easy. The Ramada Inn that serves as the host hotel and headquarters sits atop a high bluff overlooking the mighty river. Sitting poolside or outside selected rooms, the view is that of a travel brochure come to life. A return to the city’s Golden era, when southern belles awaited the visit of a gentleman caller and the arrival of the next stern wheeler was signaled by the deep throated hoot of a steam whistle, is a short daydream away. A real mint julep is as close as the hotel bar.
It has been a few years since the GMRBR has been graced with decent weather. In fact, the past two events have seen only one flight each. This would not be the case in 1995.
Like so many events these days, the festival kicks off with a balloon glow on Friday evening. However, lacking a central launch site, balloons are dispatched to parks, schoolyards, and shopping centers on both sides of the river giving the event the feel of a "neighborhood" glow. A stiff breeze had been blowing all day yet almost as if on cue, the wind calmed and balloons began to inflate all along Highway 84, the main roadway joining Vidalia and Natchez. The largest single grouping of balloons is found along the narrow roadway atop the river levee on the Louisiana riverbank. This is where most spectators gather for the glow and accompanying fireworks.
Although Natchez offers no central launch site for the balloons, historic Rosalie mansion serves as the primary festival grounds. (Rosalie is a large brick mansion built in 1820 near the site of the earlier French fort. The house served as the local headquarters for the Union army in the Civil War.) Here one finds the typical bandstand, food booths, crafts and souvenirs. Situated high above the Mississippi, the mansion grounds offer a spectacular location from which to sit and watch the balloons crossing the river, as is usually the case. But this was not to be a usual year.
Thanks to a nearby passing front, the competition began Saturday morning with winds from the northwest-a direction never flown before in the previous nine years of this festival. Balloonmeister Bill Cunningham and his staff were forced into action as none of the 25 pre-selected targets could be accessed given the available launch sites, landing sites and wind direction. After some quick behind the scenes consultations a plan was hatched. Soon we found ourselves in a rolling caravan en route to nearby Frogmore, Louisiana where 71 balloons would launch from a field better suited for half that number. The task was a simple hare and hounds. The flight patch would take the balloons near a large PZ. Instructions were to land downwind of the hare or fly on across the river into Mississippi where landing sites were scarce at best.
The flight was one of the most peaceful and beautiful ones in recent years. Below were wide expanses of cotton fields, some still not harvested. To the uninitiated, their white coloring looked more like a dusting of snow than a cash crop. Small stands of trees gave contrast to the landscape while the sun, rising quickly in the east, turned the distant river into a band of silver. Jim Biglane, piloting the hare balloon, settled in for an easy landing after a flight of almost forty minutes. Scoring was extremely tight, ten feet from the target good for just 20th place!
Throughout the day the surface winds continued to move around the compass as the front continued east. By evening the principle direction was straight up river! This is traditionally one of the most exciting flights of the weekend, affectionately known as the Bomb the Barge task. In simple terms a river tug positions a barge mid-river below Fort Rosalie. The task is to fly across the river, dropping a marker on the barge. Any drop on the barge scores. Spectators crowd into the Fort Rosalie grounds and along the river levee to cheer the daring aeronauts. That’s the way it usually works, but once again, this would not be a usual year.
Not only were the winds uncooperative, Cunningham and staff tossed another wrench into the mix. The task was no simple barge drop, instead it was to be a maximum distance double drop! For those who have never flown here that may not sound so daunting, yet until 1994 no more than a handful of baggies had ever found their way onto the barge. Last year, on an evening with highly unusual steerage, twenty-eight pilots found the barge. Still, to hit a moving target, not with one marker but two, and to attempt to gain distance between the two, this was a challenging task!
The poor wind direction notwithstanding and with comments of ‘you can’t get there from here’ floating through the pilot briefing, Cunningham called the task. No minimum distance was required for launch, only that the launch site had to be on dry land!
The next two hours would see pilots and crews driving back and forth across the river searching for a single point of land, any point of land, from which to launch and approach the barge. In the end almost half of the pilots chose not to fly. Not only did the task seem unachievable, the winds offered only two options for a safe return to dry land; fly high and ride the easterly winds aloft back into Mississippi or stay low, going up river. Neither option offered much in the way of decent landing sites.
Still there were those who took up the challenge. Greg Hanson was first in the air, launching from the front lawn of the Ramada Inn, a mere few thousand feet away from and in clear view of the target. Everyone cheered as he flew right to the barge and dropped both markers, on at each end of the target, just as the task required! Newly- crowned national champion Pat Cannon followed shortly after and remarkably enough tied Hanson, both with a distance of 144 feet between their markers; this on a 160 foot barge! Cannon’s score moved him into first place.
Bill Sineath was not so lucky. After missing the barge he found himself low on fuel (he had launched from some distance away and was carrying two passengers). He opted to hail one of the many boats on the river for a tow. His plan was to disembark his passengers on the shore (where the boat could return them to safety) then fly on to dry land. Unfortunately the boat’s skipper knew little about towing a balloon, turned down river (against the wind) and roared full speed ahead. Sineath and his passengers soon found themselves shoulder deep in the cold Mississippi. Those of us on shore watched as Sineath heroically recovered the balloon and tried again and again and again. Despite three more dunkings in the river, Sineath at last reached dry land. After a short flight he disappeared through a hole in the trees into a field where he was able to pack and recover the balloon.
Others fell victim to the river as well. While no one else got their feet wet, the sun set on a few pilots who found themselves and their balloons down in the wilds of Mississippi River swamp lands. A sheriff's department helicopter aided in the rescues as the last pilot, crew and balloon were reunited shortly after midnight.
Sunday morning again found the balloons in a caravan to Louisiana. The Concordia airport would serve as the launch site for a two-part Gordon Bennett Memorial task with targets placed on the road atop two river levees.
The change from a standard scoring circle to the long, narrow scoring surface offered by the Gordon Bennett task may have confused some of the pilots. While the grass on either side of the road was littered with markers, only fourteen pilots succeeded in placing their marker on the road at the first target. As the flight continued on to the coordinates of the second target, no "X" was to be found. It had mistakenly been placed about a mile from its planned location. Pat Cannon was the only pilot to go high enough to fly over the target. His drop from several hundred feet high was well off the mark.
However, Cannon was among those few who scored on the first target and that was enough to solidify his position at the top. Cannon took home the first prize of $1,000 and a one-week vacation for two at the Las Vegas Lady Luck Hotel & Casino. David Miller finished second and Greg Hanson was third.
A Sunday evening consolation prize found twenty-one pilots remaining to compete for the separate $1,000 prize purse. With winds reported at 14 and gusting to 21 miles per hour, we were directed to the grounds of Fort Rosalie to launch from among the spectators gathered there. The winds were expected to carry us across the river into Louisiana. Once on site a few pibals confirmed our worst fears. Like the previous evening, the winds were blowing up river and showed little sign of abating. Cunningham had his scoring officers place first one, then a second, then a third target along the river levee road. Again the task was a Gordon Bennett, one marker, pilot’s choice of any of the three targets.
Only nine of us flew. I was next to last to launch and as I cleared the edge of the bluff and flew out over the river I found myself on a heading to cross the levee road! Only one of the seven pilots ahead of me had even dropped a marker and he was wide off the side of the road. The sole balloon behind me was flying at the tree tops, moving parallel to the levee. ‘Just get the marker on the road,’ I told myself and first place would be mine. Usually this would be true, but (you guessed it!) this was not a usual year. My marker found its way to the road, but it was a few feet outside the limited scoring distance. (The prize money was split evenly among the nine of us who flew.) Fortunately the winds calmed and everyone landed easily in the same huge cotton field.
The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race has enjoyed a decade of growing success. The Mississippi River, along with the varied topography of the Vidalia/Natchez area, offer pilots a challenging arena in which to perform. The event sponsors and residents of the area provide a social setting steeped in the genteel ways of the Old South. Together, these elements make the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race one of the most eagerly awaited events of any year, usual or not!