Hot air might be what floats the buoyant Liberty Bell balloon, but there isn’t any hot air in the way Bill Weiss talks about his desire to honor veterans.

"Our balloon has the unmistakable stars and stripes pattern and ensures everyone will know who is in the air," says Weiss. "Truly a patriotic way to honor the vets."

Weiss is a board member on the Liberty Bell Project, a charitable group that provides free hot air balloon rides to veterans and active military personnel, to honor their service and sacrifices.

Mike Lesmeister from the Lesmeister Balloon Company had the vision to give veterans free balloon flights several years ago when he first purchased the Liberty Bell. At that time, he funded the project personally. His vision, shared with other crew members and pilots, "ballooned" into something bigger when they became a 501(c)(3) this past December and raised funds from local businesses.

Lesmeister is the primary pilot for the Liberty Bell Project and has donated the red, white, and blue balloon envelope to the organization. The group is still in need of its own gondola and currently relies on using borrowed baskets for flights. Weiss says so far about 20 veterans have taken free balloon flights because of Lesmeister’s dream.

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Weiss, beside being a board member, is also the Liberty Bell Hot Air Balloon Rally Co-Chair at this year’s Rochesterfest. George Ibach launched the Rochesterfest hot air balloon rally 29 years ago, but now it will reach new heights as the first annual rally for the Liberty Bell Project. "We are hoping to put on a great show for the people during Rochesterfest to make people aware of our mission and get the public involved with volunteering to crew for our flights – and hopefully raise some money," says Weiss.

Weiss served nearly 31 years as part of the Rochester Police Department and he’s now close to earning his own balloon license. He’s says he’s excited to "give back to all men and women in SE MN that served and sacrificed" so that he has the opportunity to fly.

During Rochesterfest this year, there will be several fun events to enjoy hot air balloons and help support the Liberty Bell Project. On Monday-Wednesday, June 24-26, there will be hot air balloon crew training from 6-8 p.m. near the YMCA in Soldier’s Field Park. The training will be open to anyone who wants to learn the basics. Bring a pair of leather gloves along and consider signing up to crew, or to support a future free flight carrying a veteran.

On Thursday, there will be a rally "glow" in Soldiers Field Park at sunset. The event will include several balloons lit from within as "flames burst to music." The rally glow will let the whole family enjoy the magnificent sight. On Friday and Saturday, June 28-29, there will be 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. flights involving about ten balloons.

For Weiss, the soaring flight of the Liberty Bell Project is one that provides a "unique memory to honor the service and sacrifice of not only the vet, but to the family members that ... sacrifice at home."

What:  Hot Air Balloon Crew Training


6-8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, June 24-26

Where: Soldiers Field Park, 300 7th St. SW, Rochester

Cost: Free

What: Liberty Bell Hot Air Balloon Rally Glow

When: Sunset Thursday, June 27

Where: Soldiers Field Park, 300 7th St. SW, Rochester

Cost: Free

What: Liberty Bell Rally Flights

When: 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 28-29

Where: Soldiers Field Park, 300 7th St. SW, Rochester

Cost: Free