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'I Was In Shock': Vikings Halftime Hot Air Balloon Disaster Recounted 50 Years Later

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- In his downtown Minneapolis law office, attorney Rick Snyder recalls a big event as a little boy.

"I was in shock," Snyder said.

Looking back all these many years, one clearly sees that there are special moments in everyone's life that often define us.

"Seeing the ground drop away from underneath me, I'd never been in a balloon that high before," Snyder said.

The defining moment came at the old Metropolitan Stadium on Dec. 14, 1969.

"I didn't know enough to be scared. I was only 11," Snyder said.

The Minnesota Vikings were playing the San Francisco 49ers. They had won the game 10-7, and soon be headed to their first Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs.

All these many years later, Snyder still has the large scrapbook recalling that fateful day. He would be part of a Vikings halftime show that would go terribly and dangerously wrong.

His parent's owned a hot air balloon and were there to take part in the show that was going to promote the upcoming St. Paul Winter Carnival.

"They were going to launch a hot air balloon on a 200-foot tether, take it up and with somebody in it, take it down the length of the field and pull it back down," said Bob Jasperson of Wings of the North Air Museum in Eden Prairie.

That was the plan anyway. But when the balloon didn't lift off the frozen Met Stadium field with Snyder's mom inside the basket, she soon jumped out -- and her 11-year-old son jumped in.

VIkings Halftime Show Balloon Disaster
(credit: CBS)

"That worked. It certainly went up, but the problem is it kept going up because the rope connected to it somehow failed," Snyder said.

That's when the stadium's snow-covered fans watched as Snyder flew solo in the hot air balloon basket. Up, up and away. The flight was just seconds old when he narrowly missed the scorching hot stadium lights, which would have spelled almost certain disaster.

"[Stadium spectators] thought this was just part of the show, that the balloon was supposed to fly out of the stadium," Jasperson said. "But it was not."

Unfortunately, the 11-year-old's troubles were only just beginning. Not only was he flying into the path of the oncoming air traffic at MSP Airport, but he would disappear into the clouds.

The Federal Aviation Administration took immediate action to close all air traffic while Snyder's wayward balloon proceeded to the southeast. After a three-mile flight, Snyder was able to release some of the hot air, and the balloon quickly descended -- directly into the frigid and slush-filled waters of the Minnesota River.

That's when the basket tipped, catapulting Snyder into the river. Without his weight, the balloon then flew away unpiloted.

Snyder remembers the river landing.

"It was filled with slush, so I was swimming through slush," he said.

With his waterlogged snowmobile suit, boots and helmet, he would swim 25 yards to shore. To his good fortune, a photographer was in the area and soon snapped a photograph of stunned young boy climb onto the river bank. The man would bring Snyder back to Metropolitan Stadium, where Vikings team doctors checked him over and put his wet clothes in a dryer.

While that was taking place, Snyder's parents remained in hot pursuit of the balloon.

"They were out searching and following the path of the balloon, and not realizing it had landed and taken off again," Jasperson said.

His folks finally spotted the balloon resting in a snow-covered farmer's field.

"My poor mom and dad wandered out into the field through the deep snow, only to get up to the balloon and I wasn't in it. They lost it at the time," Synder said.

With the help of CB radios, the panicked parents were soon told the good news: Their son Rick was alive and well in the Vikings locker room.

They would soon be reunited, and the happy ending was being told in newspapers across the country.

Looking back at the momentous event from 50 years ago, Snyder smiles.

"I feel like I've dodged a lot of bullets through that situation," he said.

Along with light poles, planes and ice chunks.

The fabric balloon -- a piece of Viking's halftime history and Minnesota aviation lore -- is now on permanent display at Wings Museum of the North.

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