As the early morning sun rose over the hills of southeastern Connecticut, it looked to residents of Norwich as if the Statue of Liberty had broken free from her pedestal off the tip of Manhattan and floated up the coast. As the apparition touched down in a local football field, gawkers saw that the enormous replica of Her Greenness was, in fact, a hot-air balloon heated by propane burner and piloted by Gerard and Mark Lefevre, local brothers who sewed together the 17-story, 170-foot lady in Mark’s rented three-car garage in nearby Jewett City. “My hat’s off to them,” says Sam Porter-Price, one of two dozen friends and ground crew who helped bring off the balloon’s maiden flight. “When you see it fly, you know what the Lady’s all about.”
Gerard, 26, who with Mark commands Eastern Connecticut Balloon Services, has built eight balloons since he first took up lighter-than-air flight in 1979. He was just finishing construction of a balloon in the shape of a giant hammer when he conceived of the Liberty project in March of last year. “Nary a day went by when I didn’t put some kind of thought into it,” he says. Plundering available information on the statue’s dimensions and design, he drew up plans reproducing the Lady in exacting detail. Mark, 27, a fixed-wing pilot who is also building an airplane in his basement, pitched in. Together they spent about $40,000 of their own money. Putting aside their carpentry business, they worked an average of 12 hours a day on two industrial sewing machines, piecing together some 2,200 yards of ripstop nylon with 12 miles of thread. “I think we know a little bit about what [Statue of Liberty sculptor Frédéric Auguste] Bartholdi went through building the thing,” says Gerard. Coincidentally, the brothers share a surname with Edouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, the Frenchman who first thought to present America with a monument to liberty.
For Gerard and Mark, their creation embodies the American dream. “It shows what perseverance and pride can get you,” says Gerard. The brothers hope to carry that message to the rest of the country by taking their 90,000-cubic-foot balloon on a nationwide tour this summer. Those Americans who can’t make it to Lady Liberty’s 100th birthday celebration in New York may just turn around to discover she’s landed in their neighborhood.