Going Out In Style

Published 8:00 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2012

NATCHEZ – It was the best kind of retirement ceremony he could have hoped for.

     Brookhaven’s Steve Jones took first place at the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in Natchez over the weekend, a race he’d announced beforehand as his final one.

     “It was awesome,” said Jones, describing not only a successful weekend but a successful 14 years as a hot air balloon pilot.

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     To add to the poignancy of Jones’ victory, his first race was in 1998 in Natchez.

     “We had agreed let’s go out with the one we started in,” Jones said.

     Looking back on the competition, not only was it a career ender but a career highlight.

     “It’s the best scoring I’ve ever done,” said Jones, who’s never won the Natchez race before.

     He accomplished a career best in a difficult setting with stiff competition.

     “Natchez is one of the toughest places to fly because of the bluffs and the river,” Jones said.

     Among his competitors in Natchez, Jones counted five different men that have won national championships, some on multiple occasions.

     “It was some tough competition,” he said.

     He wasn’t feeling optimistic going into the awards ceremony, though. The balloon competition was scored on a Saturday morning event that required balloon pilots to drop sand bags onto targets on the ground below.

     Jones said he knew he’d done well in the drop but a formula is used that takes into account how many pilots scored on each target.

     This makes determining a pilot’s final standing less than straightforward.

     “I had not sat down and tried to compare myself with others, because I knew Sunday could change everything,” Jones said.

     However, due to high winds, Sunday’s competition was canceled.

     When it came time for the Sunday awards banquet, Jones sat listening.

     “They were calling 20 places,” Jones said.

     He’d at least expected to be in the top 20, but as the numbers inched toward the bottom, his name hadn’t yet been called. Jones decided he hadn’t even cracked the top 20.

     “Coming down to the last five, my wife squeezed my arm and said, ‘I guess we didn’t do it,'” Jones said.

     Then the second-place announcement came, and it was Jones’ son-in-law, Brian Hoyle. Jones was excited about that.

     Then, the first-place announcement came: Steve Jones, of the Budweiser balloon. He’d won.

     “When they called my name, I was choked up,” Jones said.

     He’s still amazed by how everything worked out. He won his final race right where he began as a pilot.

     “Everything came together,” Jones said.

     And though a few more “fun flights” are planned, Jones’ racing days are now officially behind him.

     A geometry teacher at Brookhaven High School, Jones got into balloon flying through a friend, Mike Belote.

     Belote wanted to buy a balloon if Jones would get a license to pilot it. After about five years of discussion, that’s exactly what happened.

     “We did it for fun,” Jones said. “We called it our fantasy hobby.”

     Jones said age and time were the two factors that led him and his wife, Cathy Jones, to make the decision the time for retirement had come.

     “We decided we reached a point in our lives that we’re feeling way too tired when we’re done with this,” Jones said.

     However, he couldn’t call it quits without Belote. Saturday afternoon, Jones took Belote up into the Natchez skies during a non-scored afternoon flight.

     “To have him in the basket flying next to me was special,” Jones said.