“Young Guns” at the US National Junior Championship, Texas

In 1978, a partnership between Longview, Texas balloonist Dr. Bill Bussey, and the managers of the newly opened Longview Mall, launched “The Great Texas Balloon Race”. To some it may seem presumptuous that an event never before held is called ‘Grand’, but in its 44-year history, this annual gathering of aeronauts from all over the United States has more than proven that The initial hyperbole was well placed. In 1985, less than a decade after its start, the event earned Longview a governorship proclamation as the “Balloon Capital of Texas.” In 2013, the 83rd Texas Legislature named the host of Gregg County “the ball racing capital of Texas.” Along the way, Bussey and the GTBR staged the first ‘balloon gleams’ now copied by virtually every hot air balloon event in the world.

From 2012 to 2015, the GTBR hosted the US BFA National Championship, and this year, working with the BFA on the basis of a proposal presented by Bussey in 2019, the GTBR hosted the first BFA Junior National Championships.

“Young Guns” was an idea Bussey first pioneered in 2019 with the goal of attracting the next generation of “young” and “new” pilots to competitive flying. Drivers for the Junior National Championships had to be 29 years of age or younger at the start of the event and meet other experience requirements. They would fly alongside the regular GTBR pilot group (including several world and national champions) but would be rated separately.

Seven young men answered the call, most of whom had a generational connection to sport. For example, Duncan Hernandez is the grandson of pilots Pat and Susan Harwell; Blake Aldridge (a hometown favorite) is the son of the longtime crew of Dr Bussey, Larry and Kathy Aldridge, and there was Joe Seymour, whose late father was a balloonist and Spencer Copas, son of Jerry and Kathy Copas.

As a precaution for the Covid-19 pandemic, all entries and events at the usual site of the event, the East Texas Regional Airport, have been canceled. Instead, the three competitive morning flights would be performed using targets spread throughout the city. Non-competitive flights and static exhibits were scheduled on Friday and Saturday nights as there would be no balloon lights or concerts.

Perhaps the most significant change in the organization of the event, certainly from an insider’s perspective, was the absence of longtime Balloonmeister, Jim Birk, who died in 2020. Sam Parks stepped in to help. fulfilling this role admirably as the event honored Birk’s memory with a banner championship.

Unlike the BFA Team National Championships, which took place a week earlier just 60 miles east of Shreveport-Bossier, Louisiana, the GTBR would be blessed with dry, hot but flyable weather. Parks set up with a flight in 4 tasks. starting with a Fly In, a Gordon Bennett Memorial (with the scoring area adjacent to the FIN target), followed by a Waltz Hesitation and a Max Distance Double Drop.

Joe Seymour got off to a good start (sorry!) By perfectly separating the FIN target and the GBM scoring area (see cover photo) and took 1000 points in both tasks. He followed that up with 2nd place scores of 986 and 902 in tasks 3 and 4 to lead the field after day one with 3,888 points out of a possible 4,000 points.

After day one, Joe Seymour was the leader with 3,880 points, Spencer Copas was second with 2,713 points and Blake Aldridge third with 2,264 points.

Hometown favorite Blake Aldridge started off as a solid runner-up with 965 points on the fly, but faded away with scores of 584, 429 and 286 on subsequent tasks. Gordon Hall will win task 3 and Spencer Copas will win task 4.

On the second day, Parks called 3 more tasks, a Fly In, another Hesitation Waltz and a Fly on. The final two tasks on Days 1 and 2 were recorder scores but, again unlike previous Nationals, the GTBR and Jr. Nationals opted to use the older and proven Garmin Dakota 10 recorders and the BFA scoring rather than the new “Balloon Live” sensor / app which resulted in scoring delays for the team competition.

Blake Aldridge would duplicate Seymour’s effort on day one by winning tasks 5 and 6 but finished 4th on task 7. Daniel Sasser would win his only task with 1,000 points on task 7.

After day two, Seymour maintained their lead with 5,592 points as Aldridge jumped to second with 4,835 points and Copas fell to third place with 4,259 points.

Until now, the weather had been good for the competition with clear skies, a little haze but not enough to affect visibility, and directional winds with, as double national champion Pat Cannon said, “the left is going strong in the first hour “. Cannon would also note that flying over the city in 2021 was much more difficult than flying to the East Texas Regional Airport and the surrounding countryside which is the usual GTBR competition ground. The target areas were smaller, as were many landing zones available to pilots, usually north of the loop highway that circles the city to the north.

Despite the “ticketless events” policy, there was no shortage of spectators to cheer on the pilots. Once declared during the briefing, the target locations were released to the public via social media and local residents flocked to view the balloons, often causing traffic jams located a few blocks around the targets, making it difficult at times slow and difficult for pursuit teams who are used to being in front of their pilots to report weather and piloting observations to support them. It was different but still quite an exciting sight for those who turned out to be spectators who rarely fly over targets downwind of the usual festival site at the airport.

For the final day, Parks initially called three tasks, a Fly In, a Maximum Distance Double Drop (in the same target scoring area) and a Hesitation Waltz. However, there was concern about high wind speeds (15 to 20 knots) in the first 1000 to 1500 feet, which would cause surface winds to increase as the morning progressed and landings became imminent. Since this was also the last window of flight with shortened timelines for scoring and protests and rewards to follow, Parks canceled the final task and allowed downwind landings in the same field as the only target in the morning.

With a lead of 757 points and two innings, it was yet another battle between Seymour and Aldridge in second. 2033 points behind in third place, it would take a colossal failure from Seymour and Aldridge for Cameron Wall to reach the title, but stranger things have happened in the hot air balloon.

On target, Seymour found himself in traffic jams and feared he had lost the title. “[I[ set myself right to where I wanted to be but when I wanted to come down to approach the target and had two balloons right where I wanted to be, so had a choice of coming down a little early or come down right after I cross(ed) over the top of the one balloon that would be right below me. I made a slight hesitation on what I wanted to do and so I had to come down right after I pass(ed) over the top of the balloon which, in the end, was the wrong decision as I just about didn’t even make the field of the ‘X’ but I got as low as I could and caught the right wind to get a score on the ‘X’ but just missed on my max double drop and I thought in my mind I had lost the event.”

Meanwhile Cameron Wall made a valiant charge winning the Fly In task and taking 2nd place on the MXDD with a hefty 916 point. Down by 2,033 points going into the day he scored a whopping 1,916!

Cameron Wall watches his marker fall to win task 8.

Fourth place Duncan Hernandez also made a push to gain the podium, outscoring Wall with 973 points on the Fly In target and winning the MXDD.

Aldridge, despite having one of his three markers tangle in his crown line, had beaten Seymour on both tasks, taking 3rd place on each, but would it be enough? When the gunsmoke cleared it was a shockingly close result, but Joe Seymour claimed the BFA Junior National Championship by THREE points! Aldridge finished 2nd overall and Wall was third. Hernandez’ strong finish was not quite enough to put him on the podium.

US National Junior Championship & Young Guns
The ‘Young Guns’ 2021

Sunday, June 20th was also Father’s Day making this championship win an emotional one for Seymour: 

“It really never hit me till I came off the podium and seeing my mom crying and so I started to tear up [too]. My dad passed away about 5 years ago now, and I knew his only hot air balloon victory was on Father’s Day when I was little. Once I knew the result, I was happy but also sad not to be able to share the moment with him because he was the one who made me go up in a hot air balloon and [I] Thought I would always fly by his side and still have a fun little father / son competition [on the side], but I know he always flies next to me and watches me.

“This victory will always be special because our first two victories were on Father’s Day and we both received eagles as a trophy and [I] I couldn’t have had a better Father’s Day gift than knowing that it will always fly right next to me every time I take to the skies.

Article by Glen Moyer, editor of the Ballooning Journal in which this article first appeared. The event, also known as the Young Gun competition, is a subset of the Great Texas Balloon Race. Balloon photos by Joey Scarpinatto / Ballooning Journal, photo by Young Guns Glen Moyer.

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