Above Reality

A hot air balloon company takes people into the skies of Vermont to experience a whole new reality


Story by Felicia Bonanno
Pictures provided by www.balloonvermont.com

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Snyder's three balloons fly over countrysides and towns.

Some experiences are so beautiful, they move people to tears. That’s what happened to Ann Dutil of Vermont when she went on her first hot air balloon ride. “I was so happy that I was crying,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe how quiet and peaceful it was.”

Dutil experienced this moving memory through Above Reality, a hot air balloon ride company in Jericho, Vt. Above Reality, a commercial ballooning company, is owned and operated by Jeff Snyder, who has been ballooning for over a decade. He started his company nine years ago when a project he was doing in a business class at Penn State inspired him to start a business of his own—one that would take him, and other people, to new heights. His inspiration led him to Colorado Springs, where he worked for a large ballooning company, learning the ins and outs of the business. He then moved to Phoenix to work for another ballooning business, where he expanded his knowledge even further before returning to the Green Mountain State. Now, he owns a fleet of three hot air balloons, which range in size (the largest one, at 210,000 cubic feet, holding 8 to 10 passengers, is the largest in all of New England) and are operated year-round by him and his ballooning crew.  

“We provide safe and entertaining balloon rides in Champlain Valley and Vermont,” says Snyder, who pilots almost every ride. “It sounds cliché when I say ‘a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ but that’s really what customers are getting. They are making a memory.”

“Sometimes we will land in a field where nobody is around, other times we will land in the middle of a cul-de-sac.”

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Balloon riders have the opportunity to fly right over Lake Champlain.

Would-be passengers sign up online or by contacting Snyder. Then, they meet at a designated spot. From there, they determine which way the wind is blowing in order to pick a perfect launch site. Once the site is chosen, they begin to inflate the balloon and get ready for take-off. “People can take pictures or sit around at this point while we are readying the balloon, but for those who are interested in being involved, we welcome them to help with the process,” Snyder says.

Then, they lift off. They fly over scenic Vermont for an hour, over country farms and towns. “When I went up we actually went right over the area where I lived because the weather was cooperating,” Dutil says. “I’ve lived in Vermont my whole life, but it just gives you a whole new perspective. I could see Lake Champlain and the mountains. It was just beautiful. My only complaint is that it didn’t last long enough. The hour flew by.”

Just as the launch site is dependent on the weather, so is the landing site. The ground crew follows the balloon in a van, and it touches down wherever it is convenient. “This makes it a different experience for everyone,” Snyder says. “Sometimes we will land in a field where nobody is around, other times we will land in the middle of a cul-de-sac." Occasionally, Snyder says, the most convenient place will be near a school. The teachers and students will come out, and while the crew packs up they will answer questions and even let the children help pack the balloon, if they like. Before passengers head home after the three and a half hour adventure, they have a toast with champagne, Vermont fudge, and cheddar cheese.

“The balloons go through a rigorous yearly inspection.”

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Snyder pilots almost every balloon ride.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Snyder says. “People propose in balloons and have weddings on the ground or in flight. People have scattered ashes out of the balloon, too. We get all kinds of people, celebrating birthdays, retirements, or going on vacation.” The majority of his customers are couples, although plenty of families come to Above Reality. Snyder usually recommends that children under 8 not ride, though, not because of safety issues, but because the loud noises the burners make can scare young children. Safety is almost never an issue.

“The balloons go through a rigorous yearly inspection,” says Steve Summer, one of the balloon crew chiefs who helps set up and recover the balloon. “Jeff is one of the better pilots that I’ve known. He is very methodical and safety conscious. Safety has never been an issue.”

“All the balloons are inspected by the Federal Aviation Administration, so these aren’t just things that I’ve sewn together,” Snyder says. “They are certified by repair facilities. I always tell people not to worry because I’m in there, too, and I’m not going to put myself in a bad situation. This is my job, so I’m required to be good at it. One of the biggest safety factors, though, is weather, so there are days when we just can’t fly the balloon.”

Dutil felt very safe on her ride with Above Reality. “I hate heights, but I wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride,” says Dutil, whose husband paid for her to go for her birthday. “Even though I’m afraid of heights, I felt safe. Jeff made it a fantastic experience by pointing things out and having a sense of humor.”

Snyder doesn’t do it all alone, though. “This is a team sport,” he says. ‘I don’t do this by myself. I have guys who are very loyal, hardworking, and intelligent.”

“I do it because I enjoy it,” says Summer, who has worked for Above Reality for six years, after having retired from his old job. “I look at it as a job, but I don’t feel like I’m compelled to do it. I enjoy the work itself and seeing the joy that passengers get out of it. I like to try to make that ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’ as joyful as possible for the passengers.”

“I do it because I enjoy it.”

Snyder, Summer, and the rest of the crew are clearly bringing that joy to passengers, since Dutil’s balloon ride brought her such happiness that it brought her to tears. “I would go again in a heartbeat,” says Dutil, emphatically. “Anybody who can go, should.”

 

What is the most breathtaking hot air balloon ride you've ever been on?

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