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WATCH: Locals get a free balloon ride - thanks to Family Fresh

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The Family Fresh Market-sponsored balloon piloted by Bennett Schwontkowski of Cary, Ill., makes its way east over Hudson. Riding with the pilot was Jill Foster, Kirk Lyksett and Laura Lieffring. (Photo by Raymond T. Rivard)2 / 4
Taking a ride in a hot air balloon last weekend are (from the left) Kirk Lyksett, Jill Foster and Laura Lieffring. Foster was a customer winner from the Family Fresh Market New Richmond store and Lyksett was her guest on the ride. Lieffring, a part-time employee at Family Fresh, was the employee selected to take the free ride. (Photo by Raymond T. Rivard)3 / 4
The Family Fresh balloon is prepared for its flight last Friday afternoon in Hudson. (Photo by Raymond T. Rivard)4 / 4

Thanks to Family Fresh Market, Jill Foster, Kirk Lyksett and Laura Lieffring had the rides of their lives last Friday.

Foster won a drawing through the New Richmond Family Fresh store for a free hot air balloon ride at last weekend's 28th annual Hot Air Affair held in Hudson. She brought along Lyksett as her guest.

Lieffring, a part-time employee at Family Fresh, was the New Richmond store employee selected to take this year's ride.

The winners gathered at the E.P. Rock School grounds late last Friday afternoon and waited for about 30 minutes as the Family Fresh-sponsored balloon piloted by Bennett Schwontkowski of Cary, Ill., and his assistants unbagged the balloon, connected it to the basket and filled it with air for their flight.

They were right on schedule, Schwontkowski said as he and his guests piled into the basket and began their slow ascent into the clear blue Friday afternoon sky.

With the light winds blowing from the southwest, it appeared that their afternoon flight would take them from Hudson east to the New Richmond or Roberts area where they would eventually land 30 to 60 minutes into their flight.

Schwontkowski said he's been flying for about 40 years.

"I had a balloon fly over my house and I went out and chased it," Schwontkowski said about his first encounter with a hot air balloon. "When it landed, they needed help in putting it away. They said if I helped them I could get a free balloon ride. That first one was free, but the next one cost me several thousand dollars when I bought one."

Since then, Schwontkowski said he has owned about 15 different balloons as well as flying corporate-sponsored balloons.

He's attended the Hudson event for about 15 of the 28 years of the Hot Air Affair.

While it took Schwontkowski about 30 minutes to get the Family Fresh balloon airborne, he said putting it away can be a lot quicker.

"We've put one away in as little as two minutes and 20 seconds, but we were pretty motivated that day. Usually it takes about 15 minutes.

And as for buying a balloon these days, Schwontkowski said the average cost for one is in the $35,000 range. It's comparable to boating, I would say."

In addition to the Family Fresh Market New Richmond winners who took their ride last Friday, there were also winners from the River Falls and Hudson stores who were awarded free rides last weekend.