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New heights: Cathedral coach takes flying lessons after championship victory

Shortly after the Cathedral High School Boy’s Cross Country team won their fifth consecutive MAIS 4A State Championship, their head coach Tommy Smith achieved great heights as well — 5,000 feet in the air to be exact.

The team earned their fifth consecutive championship Tuesday at Choctaw Trails in Clinton.

On Wednesday, their coach had his first hot air balloon-piloting lesson in which he was fully at the controls for most of the flight.

The Green Wave green and white balloon, named Eden, took off from Morgantown Middle School on Wednesday afternoon before making its path over downtown Natchez and landing in a freshly disked bean field 3 miles South of Vidalia.

Smith’s flight instructor, Kurt Vitense, has been a commercial airplane pilot for more than 30 years before he took on hot air ballooning.

“I was made aware that Tommy had an interest in learning how to fly hot air balloons. I approached him and asked if he would want to take a lesson,” Vitense said. “I’ve been flying airplanes for more than 30 years and I’ve always been intrigued by hot air balloons. I’m interested in all forms of aviation. Hot air ballooning is kind of a niche segment of aviation. To become a balloon pilot, you usually know someone who is a pilot or crew member.”

Vitense — who is from St. Peters, Missouri — brought Eden and his other blue and yellow balloon Oasis with him to Natchez for the 35th annual Natchez Balloon Festival.

While Oasis is new to Natchez for the 2020 balloon festival, Vitense and Eden made their first Natchez appearance in 2018.

That was also the year Smith and Vitense became instant friends, Smith said.

“A couple years ago, they stuck me with Kurt to help crew and we instantly formed our friendship,” Smith said. “I had done some burner training with Karen Kent and this was my first actual chance at being at the controls. All in all, I guess everything went OK. Kurt is such a detail guy that you can hardly go wrong with him.”

Smith said he has been a volunteer crew member for various pilots for years. He knows a few other Natchezians, such as Curtis Moroney and Chris Trippe, who have gone on to take lessons from other pilots.

Smith said he’s not sure at this point whether he will pursue a pilot’s license.

“At this point, I just want to learn,” he said. “Bill (Cunningham) has taught Curtis Moroney and Chris both how to fly. Being that we’re all friends, it seemed like a natural progression for me to learn that skill set. Kurt offered to give me some instruction and I thought it would be fun.”

Despite his years spent flying in balloons, Smith said being at the controls was a different experience.

“It is an instant difference,” Smith said. “Kurt and I probably have 10 or so flights together, maybe more. … You don’t think about it until you’re the one controlling everything that is going on. … There was an instantaneous moment of mild anxiety knowing that you are the one flying.”

Smith said he felt more comfortable with Kurt providing instructions from before the take-off up until landing.

“With balloons, you have to learn to feel what the balloon is doing. You have to find the wind that is going to set you up in a favorable direction,” Smith said. “It was a little challenging trying to go back and forth, learning to use instruments, visual sighting and controlling the burner.

“A lot is going on at once — controlling the temperature of the envelope and watching for hazards like towers and power lines. Having someone there with thousands of hours in a commercial aircraft and hundreds of hours of balloon time makes it more comfortable.”

Vitense took over for Smith at the last few seconds of the flight — the wind was a bit fast for a novice pilot. Apart from that, Smith had full control, Vitense said.

“A fast landing can be a little challenging because it can be rough,” Vitense said. “I didn’t touch the main controls until the last 30 seconds of the flight.”

Kurt said ballooning is governed the same way any FAA certified aircraft would be and requires a minimum 10 hours of flight training and at least one solo flight before a person can be a certified pilot.

“Having crew duties and observation experience lends itself very well to flight training,” Vitense said. “For my expectations, he did quite well — especially as a first-time pilot. … I’ve gotten to know Tommy over the last couple of years and I believe he has the skill set to be a good pilot. It takes strong precision. With his day-to-day job (as a coach and owner and operator of Landscape Resources), he has to be observant, makes judgment calls and mitigates risks. Hopefully, he will stay interested and he will want to fly again.”

Smith said overall, he enjoyed the experience of flying.

“It was pretty awesome, especially when we were searching for our winds,” Smith said of the flight. “We went up pretty high. We got up to a little over 5,000 feet at one time. Things get really small at that altitude.

“The enjoyment of ballooning is not just about the flying. It’s about the friendships made all around the country. … That friendship and that southern hospitality is part of the fabric that Natchez is known for.”

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