Ballooning for POWs May Issue, Vol. 150, No. 5
Freedom Flight Inc. raises awareness of the plight of POWs, MIAs
By Layne Cameron, Photos by Tom Strattman

The best place to find solace from the dawn's frigid temperatures is near the balloons as participants fire up their burners prior to launch.
n the predawn darkness at New Mexico's Red Rock State Park, few visitors can envision anything blossoming from the lifeless silt in the morning's biting cold. Temperatures hover in the teens, and nobody, with the exception of a handful of enthusiastic volunteers, seems to be awake yet.

The hosts of the Red Rock Balloon Rally in Gallup, N.M., however, promise that the canyons will soon bloom with color and their 20th anniversary event will be worth enduring the frosty stillness.

Soon, a caravan of trucks and trailers streaming from Gallup toward the park emerge from the darkness, mimicking the closing scene from the movie "Field of Dreams." The convoy is a mix of pilots, crew and spectators who have traveled across the United States to fly in or watch the colorful rally. One can almost hear the canyons whisper, "Fly them, and they will come."

As promised, the quiet canyon becomes a flurry of activity and color as balloon crews begin the arduous task of preparing for flight. Trails leading toward the mesa tops fill with knowing spectators scurrying to prime vantage points to welcome Old Sol and witness the transformation.

The sun's rays beam upon the canyon's crimson walls and the flowering fields below. Pilot Luke Cesnik of Albuquerque Legion Post 49 is unfazed by the cold. "In Minnesota, we're used to flying on a frozen lake," Cesnik, 48, chuckles. What's important to him, he says, is the calm wind and piercing blue sky - a perfect morning for ballooning
Luke Cesnik displays a medicine bundle gifted to him by a Navajo Indian medicine man, who is also a Vietnam War veteran. Cesnik carries the "good luck" bundle with him on every flight.
Cesnik, a Vietnam War veteran and frequent balloonist, resides in St. Cloud, Minn. He holds his Legion membership in the State of Enchantment but jets around the world promoting his organization, Freedom Flight Inc. After a year of recruiting volunteers and sponsors, Freedom Flight was launched - quite literally - in 1989 to raise awareness for the plight of POWs, MIAs and their families.

The maiden voyage of Freedom Flight I affirmed founders Jim Tuorila and Bill Nohner's belief that a hot-air balloon was the best medium for the organization's message: "The American people are raising their voices to demand that American servicemen be brought home. Some of us are raising more than our voices."

Judging by the throng of visitors gathered around Cesnik and his crew, it's obvious the organization is achieving its mission. Cesnik's wife, Pam, and fellow Legionnaires Jerry Becker and Bob Hoversten act as the skeleton crew. Spectators milling about the trailer soon learn just how accessible the sport is as they're recruited to help with the launch. (When space is available, the truly lucky ones are invited to fly.)

Freedom Flight III's black envelope, or bag, with its teary-eyed eagle ensnared in barbed wire, stands out from the other balloons. The makeshift crew realizes they're a part of something more than just someone's hobby. And before Cesnik fires the dual, 19-million BTU burners, he rewards everyone with a collector's pin, a small card (complete with the balloon's statistics) and an abbreviated POW/MIA lesson: "We're flying in Freedom, because they lost theirs."

Russ Grantham, a Vietnam War veteran, enjoys a panoramic view of Red Rock Canyon. Grantham has been ballooning since 1992.

Novice crewmember and Vietnam War and Desert Storm veteran Edison Tsosie wins the lift-off lotto and is asked if he'd like to fly today. His beaming smile answers for him, and he clamors aboard. (His grin doesn't subside throughout the entire 90-minute flight.)

With a few long blasts from the burners, the balloon takes flight with cheers from the crowd. Rising up, Freedom joins a formidable armada of hot-air crafts - more than 100 balloons will take to the skies this morning. The variety is as eclectic as it is colorful. Traditionally shaped balloons are the most prevalent and range in hue from Freedom's flat black to others sporting radiant rainbow schemes. Others, however, seem to have been peeled from the pages of children's books. Humpty Dumpty, giant pigs, a globe, flying carriages and a soda can hang silently in the sky. One of the most elaborate balloons is Arky - a replica of Noah's ark, complete with 28 animals peeping over the side.

Out of the canyon's shadows, temperatures in the 40s feel like a veritable heat wave. And since the balloon moves with the breeze, no wind chill taints the warmth. "You couldn't ask for a better day to fly," beams Cesnik.

The awesome sight of the hot-air balloons stops traffic along the busy highways beneath.

Cesnik's father, a fixed-winger flyer, sparked his son's love of flight by allowing the 10-year-old to accompany him in his plane. Five years later, Cesnik earned his own flying license. Nine years ago, yearning to broaden his flying expertise, he became a balloon pilot. His extensive experience, honed by logging 40 flights a year, affords him a wealth of maneuvers and finesse that make the flight pure bliss for him and his three passengers.

From 1,000 feet up, the imprisoned eagle's gaze extends beyond Gallup to the west and Mount Taylor, some 60 miles to the east. The view, which seems to extend to the edge of the earth, is extraordinary. But taking a flight path over lower elevations proves to be even more exhilarating.
Balloons light up the night like oversized luminaries during the"Glow in the Rocks" event.

A controlled descent drops the wicker gondola within arm's reach of the sandstone cliffs, close enough to snatch a red rock for a souvenir. Dropping further, hovering mere inches above the sage, Cesnik opens one of the dual rotators. The propulsion produces a slow spin and allows the balloon to playfully roll against the smooth walls.

Laughter and Hot-air. Hearing the laughter and seeing the frolicsome maneuvers, Legionnaire Terry Drake of Post 407, High Rolls, N.M., joins the fun. Drake, a Vietnam War veteran helicopter pilot, wouldn't have dared fly his Cobra this close to a gorge - or a balloon, for that matter. But being able to drop in on his friends from out of the blue is what makes his hot-air hobby so enjoyable.

"The flying is fun," says Drake. "But it's the companionship that makes it worthwhile." The 57-year-old loves the camaraderie so much that he and his wife occasionally travel to rallies without their balloon. "We'll go and just crew for our friends."

His delight is apparent as he gives Cesnik a kiss, actually, their balloons share the smooch - a maneuver in which the pilots allow their envelopes to brush against each other. For the remainder of the flight, the two friends play hide-and-seek, flying in and out of the canyons on delicate whispers of wind. Just as Drake thought he had lost Freedom, the watchful eagle's eyes rise from the adjacent ravine as if to say, "You're it."

Just before touching down, Cesnik casts a somber note over the playful mood. Acknowledging the higher purpose of his flight, he dedicates the final pass through the canyon to every POW/MIA not yet accounted for. After a moment of silence, he offers up a slight variation of the balloonist's prayer to conclude the ceremony:

"The winds have welcomed us with softness. The sun has blessed us with its warm hands. We flew so high and so well in Freedom that God has joined us in our laughter, and he has set us gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth."


Layne Cameron is a free-lance writer living outside Indianapolis

Copyrightę2001 By The American Legion Last Updated: Apr. 27, 2001

To find out about Freedom Flight's schedule of events or to obtain membership information, write to Freedom Flight Inc., P.O. Box 1052, St. Cloud, MN 56302-1052, or visit the Web site at

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