Soaring to New Heights

Balloon pilot brings adventure to South Sound

The balloon lands, and then the prayer begins:

You have flown so high
And so low
You have flown so well
That God has brought you back
Into the loving arms of mother earth
And set you gently down once again

Following the prayer, champagne glasses clink, as the hot air balloon pilot, passengers, and landowner toast to the balloonist’s prayer. (Hot air balloons land in people’s yards sometimes.) The group that had been strangers mere moments before allows a beat to pass before collectively tasting sweet, effervescent sparkling wine imported from Italy. They reach for slices of fresh French bread with triple creme brie, rich sea salt brownies, and garden-fresh blackberries spread on the linen-covered fold-out table that stands in a modestly sized front yard.

For a moment, no one speaks as everyone takes in the flavors of the decadent food. “So can you actually steer your balloon?” asked Matt Bollinger, after the balloon landed on his property one random afternoon.

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Eliav Cohen, owner and pilot of Seattle Ballooning Photo courtesy Seattle Ballooning

Eliav Cohen, owner and pilot of Seattle Ballooning, smiled before answering one of the many questions he gets asked each sunrise and sunset during peak ballooning season from March to October.

“At different heights, the wind goes in different directions,” Cohen said.

Cohen doesn’t mind getting these repeat questions after landing in a stranger’s front yard day after day because he says landowner relations are critical, making up 75 percent of his job — hence the generous albeit impromptu post-flight spread in Bollinger’s yard.

The 33-year-old entrepreneur is a new father. He’s working to get this new ballooning business off the ground (pun intended), which involves early mornings in Burien to meet customers for sunrise flights of the Mount Rainier Valley, and the physical exhaustion of unpacking and subsequently repacking his 750-pound balloon twice a day.

Through all of this, Cohen retains his boundless positivity when interacting with passengers and landowners because he said he whole heartedly loves his job.

Cohen attributes much of his positivity to his first job as a door-to-door book salesman, when he met more than 40,000 families face-to-face over a span of nine years. He said the experience conditioned him to be the best balloon pilot and businessman he could be.160724-002

“My first summer, I literally knocked on doors in southern Indiana — this small town in the countryside — and people kept trying to get me to convert to Christianity,” Cohen said. “Or it would be raining and you’d say things like, ‘I love liquid sunshine.’ I learned to have a really positive attitude in all situations and really make it fun.”

That wasn’t all Cohen took away from his first job; a fortuitous sales contest earned Cohen a private ride on his boss’ personal hot air balloon. Cohen said the experience stayed with him for many months before he reached out to his boss again and asked if he could spend some more time in the balloon as he wrestled with the decision to purchase his own. To Cohen’s surprise, his boss was more than accommodating, taking Cohen under his wing and instructing him in every aspect of captaining a balloon.

 “He taught me that after you balloon — it is just this special experience — you should drink good wine or good Champagne and you should probably smoke a good Cuban cigar.”

“He taught me that after you balloon — it is just this special experience — you should drink good wine or good Champagne, and you should probably smoke a good Cuban cigar,” Cohen remembered. “So I was like, ‘I kind of want your life.’ Of course he had millions and millions of dollars as a CEO, but I knew I just needed to make enough money for a balloon and a truck.”

It wasn’t long before Cohen had saved up enough money to do just that, and later quit his job but remained under his boss’ tutelage until he was ready to obtain his pilot’s license.

When Cohen set out to start Seattle Ballooning in late 2015, he researched local ballooning companies and opted for a smaller basket that will accommodate up to two couples, which is far more intimately sized than those of his rivals in Woodinville, whose rigs can accommodate between eight and 20 passengers. Cohen explains this was by design, creating a much more private atmosphere for couples or a special experience for families.

Seattle Ballooning sunrise or sunset flights launch in and around Auburn, Lake Tapps, and Enumclaw and feature views of lush valleys with quietly grazing cattle, glistening vistas — including but not limited to Mount Rainier — and the winding Green River, which twists and turns like a black snake through dense foliage. On especially clear days, passengers can see Tacoma from their 3,000-foot perch. Some days they may even catch a glimpse of Bellevue if they squint really hard.

Cohen points out other notable landmarks and venues along the way and works to calm the nerves of fliers by explaining what he is doing as he does it, pulling from his vast knowledge of his chosen trade.

“If you get to love what you do every day, you are never working,” Cohen said as his balloon rose up out of the Green River Valley and into the morning sun. The top of Mount Rainier was cresting over the tops of towering and lush evergreens.“I just love ballooning.”

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is a staff writer at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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