WASHINGTON CITY — Young Coco Fox was jumping for joy.

The Fox family looks up at the Confetti Pebbles balloon, Washington City, Utah, Jan. 12, 2024 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“This is the best day ever!” the 10-year-old yelled as she leaped. 

The joy was needed, as was the hot air balloon ride she was about to take. Coco’s dad died last Thanksgiving. 

Mike Fox, a 41-year-old father and freshman football coach at Crimson Cliffs High School, collapsed on the morning of Nov. 23 and reportedly was unable to be revived after suffering a sudden heart attack. 

As part of the start of the third annual Up & Away Hot Air Balloon and Music Festival last Friday, Fox’s surviving wife and two of his three children flew in a memorial flight where they could see the Crimson Cliffs field where Fox led the Mustang foals to victory.

This wasn’t the only memorial flight that morning. Another flight of honor was held for hot air balloon pilot Keith Evans, who was scheduled to fly a balloon himself at the event in Washington City but died the Saturday before.

St. George resident Heather Watkins was piloting the memorial flight for the Fox family, taking them up in her Confetti Pebbles balloon. She also served as the balloon meister — in charge of coordinating the balloons — and knew Evans well like the others in the close-knit ballooning community. 

Pilot Heather Watkins powers up the burner of Confetti Pebbles. Watkins also served as the Balloon Meister — who is in charge of coordinating the balloons — at the Up & Away Hot Air Balloon and Music Festival, Washington, City, Jan. 12, 2024 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

When asked to describe what a memorial flight was, Watkins couldn’t finish her words. 

“If a pilot had passed away, we put the flags out while we take off, but this … this is,” she said but her eyes filled with tears and she had to walk off before finishing the sentence.

As Watkins led the pre-launch meeting, going over weather and other flying conditions with all the pilots assembled in the Staheli Farms field, two black party balloons – one for Evans and one for Mike Fox – were released. 

The idea for a memorial flight for Fox started with Wendi Buckley, whose son played on the Crimson Cliffs freshman team. Buckley is the associate field marketing manager with TDS Telecommunications, which was the chief sponsor and organizer of the Up & Away event with the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Buckley and other workers at TDS organized the flight, normally priced around $950, for the family to fly for free. Buckley, also known for recently running in the primary for St. George City Council, said there is no price big enough for what Mike Fox did for her son and others.

“It’s completely changed these boys,” Buckley said. “I just look at the personal benefits for my boy. He is 15 minutes early to practice now because of Coach Fox.”

When the late coach’s wife Melanie Fox was contacted by Buckley at the start of the month about taking the flight, it turned out that before he died, Mike Fox talked about taking their three kids up in a hot air balloon.

Except Melanie Fox was going to stay on the ground. 

Mike Fox with his wife Melanie and family seen in an undated photo | Photo courtesy the Fox family, St. George News

“I’m terrified of heights,” she said. “The plan was that he was going to take them. But I knew that (they) — especially my oldest, Coco — would be really excited about it, and so I had to say yes.”

So Coco, her 6-year-old sister Cambry and their mom climbed into the wicker basket. Coco and Cambry’s brother Charlie, born between his two sisters, had to be at school and was unable to join them. Watkins turned up the gas burner, which brought the heat to give the balloon its rise and warm up the Fox family on a 21-degree morning. 

And slowly they rose into a quiet sky.

“It’s like when you first take off, it’s just peaceful in the air,” Coco said. “Like everything, everywhere feels like big places, and it’s really cool.”

And it was the quiet peace that struck the mom. With nervous butterflies before, Melanie Fox said she now felt at peace, and also like her husband was with her and their daughters. 

Fox said it wasn’t as scary as she was expecting it to be, and she posed with her daughters for some pictures with the Crimson Cliffs field in the background more than 1,000 feet below. 

She said the peaceful quiet proved therapeutic, especially after having recently endured the first Christmas without her husband. 

She said it felt like he was with her.  

“I’m always thinking about him,” she said. “It’s always good to just feel him and have him close, and it was something that he would have loved to have done.”

Memorial for a pilot

Evans’ balloon Smiley’s Dream was supposed to fly over Southern Utah. But the man nicknamed Smiley died the weekend before the event.

Marianne and Keith Evans embrace, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Smiley’s Dream Hot Air Balloon, St. George News

It was just over a year to the day that Evans’ wife Marianne died in January 2023. The Santaquin couple who had their 34-year marriage sealed in the St. George Temple were often seen together at ballooning events, including the one at Washington City as well as other local hot air balloon events at Sand Hollow and in Mesquite. 

His sudden death was still a shock to the pilots in Washington City on Friday.

They’re supposed to be here with us this week and he was taken from us completely suddenly,” pilot Derek White said. “The balloon community is a family. Like, we will joke around but we are friends. We’re family.”

White and other pilots were quick to remember one thing: Smiley’s smile.

“His balloon’s name was Smiley’s Dream because it was his dream. And they called him that because his smile was just infectious, and he was the most helpful human being you ever met,” White said. “I know that when things happen or people leave us, we tend to Jones someone up a bit. But there’s no way you could talk this guy up higher than he really was. He was just that nice little guy.”

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