Cheers erupted as the hot air balloons lifted into the blue evening sky. Children pointed with wonderment and exclaimed to their parents as the vessels slowly drifted past Soldiers Field.
But up in a balloon, Army veteran Bruce Struves had a moment of solitude.
“It’s just quiet. It’s real peaceful,” he said.
Through Saturday, veterans and active-duty military personnel will take to the skies in hot air balloons as part of Rochesterfest celebrations. The event is being sponsored by the Liberty Bell Project, a Rochester-based nonprofit that provides free hot air balloon rides to current and former military members.
The project was started in 2019 as a way to thank them for their service. Liberty Bell purchased a vessel from local hot air balloon proprietor Mike Lesmeister and began taking veterans for rides. The group solicits volunteer pilots and community donations, so all rides are free.
“[Lesmeister’s] idea was to fly veterans. And because he’s got another business, we decided it would probably be best if we could turn this into a 501(c)(3),” said Bill Weiss, Liberty Bell vice president.
This will be the second year at Rochesterfest for Liberty Bell. The hot air balloon displays typically draw big crowds at the festival, dating back to when it was the Mayor’s Cup Balloon Race. On Tuesday evening, several dozen families dotted the grass in Soldiers Field as the balloons took off one by one.
Beyond serving as a thank-you to veterans, the project also provides entertainment for Rochesterfest patrons. Some volunteers even hope the display spurs an increase in those who want to become hot air balloon pilots and donate their time to the cause.
“If we can do these kinds of things to draw a crowd to create some more excitement, maybe we’ll get some more pilots,” said Rodney Newkirk, who has been flying since 2006.
Though the organization hopes to send 10 balloons into the sky for the main event Friday and Saturday, just four dirigibles took off Tuesday evening. The centerpiece was the stars-and-stripes-emblazoned Liberty Bell balloon, which took the night’s lone vet for a trip through the sky.
Struves, who served a tour in the Vietnam War, wasn’t initially supposed to participate in Tuesday’s ride. But when a mutual friend put him in touch with Liberty Bell, he was eager to fly.
“I can’t believe that they can put this on for free,” he said. “That’s really nice of them.”
So, as the balloon drifted northwest from Soldiers Field, Struves could relax. Newkirk guided the veteran around the city’s west side, passing Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus and Lourdes High School.
Though it was one of hundreds of flights for the 15-year pilot, it didn’t make the purpose any less special.
“We really owe our vets,” Newkirk said.