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Odd Jobs: Hot air balloon pilot - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Jobs: Hot air balloon pilot

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ESSEX, Vt. -

For many people it's a once-in-a lifetime adventure.

"Kind of on the bucket list and we thought this would be the perfect place to do it," said Joey Mimbs.

Mimbs and his wife are celebrating their 30th anniversary. The Florida couple came to Vermont to mark the milestone in an unforgettable way.

"You're going to hear some loud noises, you're going to hear some yelling, you guys will be climbing in the basket," said Jeff Snyder, hot air balloon pilot.

Jeff is a commercial pilot. His aircraft doesn't have wings, just a lot of hot air.

"Most people have never seen a balloon, they've never been near one so they certainly don't know anyone who does it as a living," said Jeff.

The Jericho native runs Above Reality Hot Air Balloon rides. He doesn't just take his passengers up in the sky. He makes them part of the experience from set up to touchdown. Photographer Lance MacKenzie got a peek inside the massive balloon as it inflated. Others were asked to act as human sandbags to keep it from floating away.

"Nobody really understands it as a business. They think it's a hobby that you're doing for fun," said Jeff.

Jeff flies clients just after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. His balloons carry four to 14 passengers during a busy season that stretches from May to October.

"I usually only take a few moments of each flight to really focus on the views. My job isn't really to look at the views and play tourist. My job is to make sure we get somewhere safe and everyone has a good time," said Jeff.

At 2,000 feet above the ground, Jeff juggles several roles as a pilot, foliage expert, navigator, tour guide, meteorologist and wise guy.

"People would ask what I did and I would either tell them I was a bartender or that I sold life insurance and the reason is because if you tell people it's those things, you pretty much don't have to answer any other questions the rest of the night when you tell someone you're a hot air balloon pilot you spend the rest of your night talking about what you do for a living," said Jeff.

Jeff is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly balloons privately and commercially. He attended ground school in Arizona and finished up his commercial training in Vermont.

"People always ask, 'can we steer?' I'm not actually steering the balloon. We're just rotating on an axis. The balloon is spinning the same way you would spin a globe," said Jeff.

But, he says earning a living in this industry has been peppered with turbulence.

"I could have all my ducks in a row, but if at the end of the day the weather doesn't cooperate we're not going flying. There's no payday for me, there's no charge in that instance and that's a tough pill to swallow," said Jeff.

Even on a busy week he may only log three to eight hours in air. The rest of his time is spent on the ground keeping his weather-dependent small business afloat.

"This is just the best part of my job. It's the highlight. This is what everyone sees, so this is what everyone thinks you do. I wouldn't trade my life in the balloon industry, but there are times I wish I had a different career, I will say that. It's not the dream job that everyone thinks it is," said Jeff.

Each one of his balloons costs $65,000 to $100,000 and requires constant maintenance. His commercial venture started as a college project. Jeff says his Penn State classmates thought he was crazy when he told them he was going to turn their fictional balloon company into a career. After 12 years, the business is finally taking off. But he says it will likely be another two decades before he recoups his initial investment.

"There was never a question in my mind as to whether it would work. Now it took me longer to get where I envisioned myself than I thought it would take me," said Jeff.

Ballooning has taken him all over the country giving him a bird's eye view of some pretty fantastic scenery.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: How do you pick a landing spot?

Jeff: A little bit of skill, a little bit of luck; it's kind of like playing three-dimensional battleships.

The balloon on this day landed in the middle of a golf course. It's part of the charm and mystery of ballooning that the Mimbs loved.

"The colors were magnificent and just the thrill of the ride. We're so glad we did it. It was amazing," said Mimbs.

And in keeping with tradition, Jeff gave the course owners a bottle of bubbly.

"The winds have welcomed us with softness, and 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. Cheers. Gentle breezes and soft landings. We're on the ground so drink 'em down," said Jeff.

It's an Odd Job that has these first time fliers toasting to a flight well done.

Jeff says this is the first year he hasn't needed a second job to supplement his income, but if you want to go for a ride it's going to cost you. Flights start at $275 per person.

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