“It never gets old,” Eliav Cohen said as he raised his iPhone at the sun peeking over the Cascades one morning this week and added another image to the 37,000 already on the device.
Cohen is not just another guy taking one-too-many pictures of a sunrise or sunset. At 3,000 feet in the air, drifting in front of a backdrop that includes a majestic view of Mount Rainier, Cohen is living his dream as the founder and chief pilot for Seattle Ballooning. The company offers hot air balloon rides over the farmland, rivers and lakes south of Seattle near Auburn, Wash.
The professional balloonist — one of just a handful in the state — is also a tech veteran who founded the The Bot Lab, which develops chatbots. The startup is also soon launching Helium, appropriately enough, a new artificial intelligence platform designed to increase brand engagement on third party websites.
Cohen’s companies have a symbiotic relationship in some ways. When he was consumed with answering the same questions over and over again from prospective customers for Seattle Ballooning, he developed a chatbot for his website to help handle the load. That allows him more time to help people experience the thrills of floating high into the sky at sunrise and sunset, just as GeekWire did this week.
Getting away from a computer and off the ground is a win for anyone who experiences one of Cohen’s balloon rides. The pilot himself was clearly giddy over the fact that he gets to bookend a day full of Zoom calls and sales meetings with beautiful balloon trips.
Seattle Ballooning operates from May to September, flying twice a day as weather permits, and getting in about 120 flights during the summer.
Fast talking and confident, Cohen started piloting in 2009 and launched the company in 2016. His enthusiasm for the unique endeavor is conveyed from the start of a trip — riding in a van with customers to a launch field while playing Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” — all the way through to the finish on the ground, when Champagne is uncorked and he gets to tell how hot air ballooning first got off the ground in 1783.
Along the way, Cohen might as well be seeing the sights for the first time himself.
“I have the same 3,000 photos of Mount Rainier,” he said as three of his craft rose up into the morning light above the White River and Lake Tapps, leaving a patchwork of housing developments and empty fields below.
The flight is punctuated by “oohs” and “ahhs” from 10 customers in the basket as the sun first rises and a layer of fog hangs in the valley. But for the occasional blast of propane gas to heat the balloon’s air and keep us aloft, it’s incredibly still and silent riding the winds without an engine. Cohen serves as an expert commentator when needed on such things as geography, weather, wind patterns, balloon history and the modern tech that he relies on, such as tracking apps.
It was decidedly low tech before we took off, when Cohen released a small helium balloon with an LED light inside of it and watched it rise with the naked eye to get an idea of what the wind was doing that morning. He’s looking forward to switching to drones that will fly up and bring readings back to the ground for pilots.
During the flight, Cohen simply leaned over the edge of the basket and spit a couple times, watching as it fell, to read the wind. And he kept an eye on the other two craft.
“See what the other balloons are doing?” Cohen said. “This is where you need no technology.”
While the sport is probably a good 40 years past its heyday, Cohen is trying hard to foster a love for ballooning in more young people, women and underrepresented groups through a program that Seattle Ballooning runs for student pilots. Amazon took notice as it was promoting a 2019 Amazon Studios film called “The Aeronauts” and donated a replica of a ballon featured in the film to Cohen for his student program.
In a story last weekend, The New York Times shed light on the efforts of Cohen and others around diversifying ballooning and injecting fresh blood into the sport.
GeekWire and the other customers flying with Cohen on Wednesday morning traveled 6 1/2 miles, reaching a maximum altitude of 3,705 feet and a top speed of 22 mph. Our slow descent was highlighted by a close pass over a colorful junkyard and a couple cows before we touched down, after a 58-minute flight, in a grassy patch behind a house. Cohen knows all the neighbors where he takes off and lands, and he said a road nearby was once the setting for a vintage Rainier Beer commercial.
As he poured Champagne and toasted the French origins of ballooning, the tech guy with a one-of-a-kind hobby asked those who had just flown with him how they enjoyed the flight, whether they got over being squeamish.
I admitted to having wobbly legs, and to gripping the edge of the basket a little tight at times. But overall it was an extremely enjoyable and smooth experience for a first timer.
“I’m actually terrified of heights,” Cohen said, 11 years into his career as a pilot. “I don’t even like to be on a ladder.”
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