Hot air balloon

An Above Reality hot air balloon touches down on a hay field designated as a landing site July 10.

ESSEX JUNCTION — Above Reality Hot Air Balloons has been operating in Essex Junction since 2002, but the company's story began 34 years ago when owner Jeff Snyder went on his first balloon ride at the Champlain Valley Expo.

At 10 years old Snyder thought nothing of his mom bringing both him and his brother on a flight when the pilot said he had space for only one person. Now, an experienced pilot, Snyder laughs about it.

After attending Essex Middle School and graduating from Essex High School, Snyder went to Penn State University. During his senior year, he was given an assignment: to design a recreation business based in State College, PA.

Snyder chose hot air balloons.

“That’s kind of where the adventure really started,” he said.

Company beginnings

In order to graduate from college, Snyder needed to do an internship, and he was determined to complete his at a hot air balloon company. He looked at every hot air balloon company he could find with a website and faxed them his resume.

“I begged every company in the United States that I could contact for an internship and most of them thought I was just a college kid trying to get a free ride,” Snyder said.

Finally, a company in Colorado Springs took Snyder on as a crew member and office assistant.

Snyder worked there for four months and slept in the office on a mattress while earning his student license. Then he moved to their sister company in Arizona to complete his training.

“I worked there for about six months, [then] I bought a couple of old balloons out of Phoenix and drove them back across the country with my brother,” he said.

When he was starting Above Reality, Snyder worked any job he could get and self-financed everything.

Now Above Reality has around 12-15 ground crew members, three balloons they use for the tours and one dog named Riggins.

“Ironically…I literally do the same stuff now as a company owner that I did as an intern,” Snyder said. “I spend my day-to-day cleaning champagne glasses, installing a license plate on a truck and fixing a trailer, except I also fly balloons.”

The balloon ride experience

A balloon ride with Above Reality begins with an email to the customer detailing important information in bright red text. Those who read the email and follow the instructions pile into a large van at Essex Resorts and are driven to the launch site.

At the landing site, Snyder calls everyone over to the basket and instructs the guests to place their hands on the outside of the basket while he relays safety information about the setup process.

Snyder’s top three priorities when he’s in the air are safety, scenery and landing sites.

After the setup is complete, those flying quickly but calmly climb into the basket and stand so Snyder is at their left-hand side. As the passengers grip onto rope handholds the crew helps the balloon lift into the sky and Malletts Bay quickly comes into view.

The route the hot air balloon follows is decided by Mother Nature, Snyder said.

“I don’t really control the left and the right, I control the up and down,” he said. “You kind of take what you’re given.”

Snyder looks at the forecasted winds before the flight but once he’s in the air he needs to be prepared to adapt.

The hot air from the petroleum is loud and warm but harmless. Those standing underneath the space where the air is produced might feel warm drops falling on them which Snyder assures passengers is not acid but warm water.

On Friday, as the balloon flew above the lake, people on the water below shouted out hellos and waved up, craning their necks and blocking out the sun with their hands.

As Snyder piloted, he was in constant communication with his crew, and checked in with the Burlington Airport as the balloon entered the Class Charlie Airspace.

The trees looked like moss as the balloon climbed higher in the air, eventually hitting a maximum altitude of 6,149 feet.

As the balloon neared its landing site, Snyder navigated around the one tree in the landing area and the basket touched down to the ground shortly after while everyone inside braced their knees for landing.

At the end of the trip, the guests were handed custom champagne flutes as they gathered around for a traditional toast given in the hot air balloon community.

“The winds have welcomed us with softness,” a photo sleeve from Above Reality states. “The Sun has blessed us with his warm hands. We have flown so high and so well, that the Gods have joined us in our laughter and set us gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

The tradition of champagne comes from the French, who started hot air ballooning, Snyder said.

“The French used to carry champagne on all their flights because farmers back then didn’t know what these evil demons [the balloons] from outer space were,” he said. “[Champagne] was how they communicated ‘Hey, we’re local.’”

The toast called the balloons’ prayer originated from an Irish bishop who recited the prayer as a blessing before the flights.

After the balloon was rolled up and stuffed back into its bag, four crew members lifted it onto a cart and the guests packed away into the van, driving back to Essex Resorts as the sun set.

More than 20 years of balloon-flight experience later, Snyder has some advice for his college self, though he isn’t sure if past-him would listen.

“It will be successful, but the product will be dramatically different than how you envisioned its implementation,” Snyder said.

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