On June 25th, 2021, Seattle Ballooning’s chief pilot Eliav Cohen had the opportunity to make a rare and unusual emergency rescue of two people stranded on the Green River. Typically rescue operations like this require a helicopter, professional emergency operators, or a child playing make-believe with a Tiger Hot Air Balloon Jungle Lego set. Eliav doesn’t have a helicopter, isn’t part of a search and rescue team, but does have a hot air balloon!
A hot air balloon rescue? Are you kidding me?
If you are thinking. That’s absurd. We’ll… it is. Without the video, I’m not sure any of us would have believed this story! Here’s the deal. Hot air balloons aren’t ever used for rescue operations, as they are officially unsteerable aircraft and only use the winds to change direction. Somehow, Pilot Eliav was able to pull off this rescue with skill, style, and a ton of luck!
The Emergency Situation
Geeneva Moraandarte and Roman Jackson, a young couple from Olympia Washington, had launched their small blowup raft at Metzler park and were headed downstream toward Green River Meats. After 3 hours of being on the river, sunset rapidly approaching, sunburnt, losing their shoes, and breaking their cell phones, they were in a lot of trouble. The two pulled their little inflatable raft to the side of the Green River in hopes of finding a way back to civilization.
Right now, you are probably thinking… wait… Is that the same Green River where the Green River Killer was? Yup…
Seattle Hot Air Balloon Team
The Seattle Ballooning hot air balloon ride team launched three hot air balloons an hour before sunset from Norman Greer Airstrip in Convington, Washington- just 25 minutes from Seattle. It was 89 degrees out, and the balloons were carrying a full load of passengers. One balloon had a pilot plus 4 couples, another provided a private flight for a 10th wedding anniversary, and the last balloon carried a group of 10 passengers. Eliav was flying the largest of the three balloons, a 225k cubic foot 10 story tall hot air balloon.
Hot Air Balloons Take Flight
After launching, the balloons caught a 13kt wind at 2300 feet going slightly SE. Mount Rainier was clear of clouds, passengers were getting epic photos, and the balloon ride operation was going perfectly. As the hot air balloons reached the cliffs of the Green River Valley, they dropped down to treetop level.
The ridge on the side of the valley filled with 100ft tall trees provided a nice wind block slowing the speed of the balloons to 7kts. River valleys often allow hot air balloons to catch orographic winds. Orographic winds occur in valleys and allow balloons to often make 90-degree directional changes. Close to sunset, the wind in the Green River typically flows Easternly as the Cascade Mountains start to cool down. As the mountain temperatures cool, the air in the valley gets sucked in toward them and creates a steerable environment for hot air balloons. Up at altitude (2000-5000 ft), there was a consistent Southernly wind at 11-16kts. Between the winds aloft and the valley winds, the balloons had approx 115 degrees of turn. Meaning on the valley surface, they would float Easternly, and at altitude, would float SW slightly.
Splash and Dash
The wind had slowed as Pilot Eliav came over the trees on the Northside of the Green River. He asked his passengers if they were okay with getting their feet wet and doing a splash and dash on the river. A splash and dash in a hot air balloon is when a balloon comes down to a body of water and touches the bottom of the basket to water. Pilots need to be careful of a few things when performing a splash and dash:
1. Aware of possible obstacles. Fingerlings of trees won’t hut the balloon fabric, but dead or sharp tree branches will. Although most leafy trees won’t hurt balloon fabric, you don’t want the balloon’s fabric to touch large branches. The only time balloon pilots are trained to touch trees is on faster wind landings. Balloon pilots in faster wind landing situations are trained to drag the basket portion through the foliage to slow the balloon’s speed, helping pilots make slower landings.
2. If the basket goes too deep into the water, there will be a lot of added weight! The pilot will need to increase the heat in the balloon to compensate for the additional load.
3. When doing splash and dashes in rivers, it’s essential to realize that the river flow will move the balloon downstream.
The Hot Air Balloon Rescue
Pilot Eliav slowly descended the balloon next to some deciduous trees and floated effortlessly 5 feet from the rushing water. It was at that moment that pilot Eliav heard calls for help. There were a few things that needed immediate assessment. Where the people on the side of the river in actual need of emergency help? Could the balloon pick up the additional weight without over-temping the envelope? And was there enough time to rescue them without putting the balloon in danger? After a quick assessment of the entire situation, Eliav lowered the balloon to the water’s surface and called the couple over to quickly jump in the basket.
The young couple waded through the rushing water to the balloon basket. As the young lady climbed into the pilot compartment, Pilot Eliav hit the burner for 10 seconds to increase the balloon’s lift. The basket at that point had an inch or two of water on the floor and was starting to move with the current. The second passenger jumped into one of the passenger compartments, and Eliav laid on both 20M BTU burners to compensate for the additional load. The heat was enough to get the balloon into a 400 feet per minute climb- quickly clearing the 100ft tall trees on the Southside of the Green River.
Rescued! Safe And Sound
Eliav increased the ascent rate to 600 feet per minute and leveled off at 1750 feet catching an 8KT Southwesternly wind. The other two balloons had already landed a mile up ahead. He eyed their designated landing location, navigated the balloon, and landed the balloon softly on the fresh-cut grass just 150 feet from the other two balloons. Another perfect balloon landing.
After deflating the balloons, the group celebrated with ice-cold waters and some delicious champagne. It was quite the hot air balloon ride! The passengers were excited to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride rescue operation, and the stranded couple was thankful that the balloon was at the right place at the right time in order save them.
In responding to folks on Tiktok and FB, Eliav Said, “It was my pleasure to help! I fly hot air balloons because I love them. Having the opportunity to help some stranded people in a potentially dangerous situation using my hot air balloon, that’s a check off my bucket list.”
Hot Air Balloon Assisted Rescue In 2020
In July of 2020, two of Seattle Ballooning’s hot air balloons assisted with the rescue of some Kayakers who were injured on the White River. The winds were moving too swiftly to go down and help, but they worked with emergency personal to help locate the kayakers. One of the funniest communications with emergency services was when they asked if we could go back and pick them up. Pilot Mckenna Secrist responded, “Balloons have a decent amount of steerage, but all the wind is going South… you do know there is no steering wheel on a balloon, right?”
What did the passengers on the flight think of being part of a hot air balloon rescue operation?
Samantha Walsh said it best, “What an amazing experience! As well as an outstanding pilot. To get that close to the water, keep the balloon stable, and rescue those kids. Hats of to you!”
Most likely, this type of hot air balloon ride rescue operation won’t occur again. The evacuation took perfect timing, perfect location, a professional skillset, and a massive amount of luck. Pilot Eliav can often be heard saying, “Skills are important, but take luck where you can find it!”