Lawn chair balloonists forced to abort flight

Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, right, and Bend, Ore., gas station owner Kent Couch lift off from Couch’s gas station in Bend, Ore., as they attempted to fly 360 miles to Montana. Bad weather, however, forced them to abort the flight. Enlarge photo

JEFF BARNARD/Associated Press

Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, right, and Bend, Ore., gas station owner Kent Couch lift off from Couch’s gas station in Bend, Ore., as they attempted to fly 360 miles to Montana. Bad weather, however, forced them to abort the flight.

BEND, Ore. – An Oregon gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer trying to fly from Central Oregon to Montana in tandem lawn chairs suspended from party balloons are back on land after having to abort their flight because of thunderstorms.

Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta were about seven hours into their flight when they were forced to descend, coming down about 30 miles east of their starting point.

Flight organizer Mark Knowles said they made a hard landing and got out of the craft, but it took off again.

The pair began their flight Saturday morning from Couch’s gas station in Bend, Ore.

Lafta, a mountain climber and sky diver, said he had shared Couch’s childhood dream of floating like a cloud. He sent Couch an email two winters ago after reading accounts of Couch’s earlier flights.

“I want to inspire Iraqis and say we need to defeat terrorists,” Lafta said. “We don’t need just an Army. We need ideology and to just have fun.”

Volunteers filled 350 5-foot-diameter red, white, blue and black balloons with helium and tied them to Couch’s homemade tandem lawn chair rig. The balloons were arranged in bunches to represent the colors of the U.S. and Iraqi flags. An American flag flew from the bottom of the framework supporting the chairs.

The rig included 800 pounds of ballast – red Kool-Aid in 40-gallon barrels. Besides a GPS, navigation gear, satellite phone, oxygen, two-way radios, eight cameras and parachutes, they were carrying two Red Ryder BB rifles and a pair of blowguns to shoot out enough balloons to come to earth when the time was right.

Expecting to float at 15,000-18,000 feet, where temperatures drop to near zero, they packed sleeping bags to stay warm.

The two men had hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down this morning somewhere in southwestern Montana.

They initially floated to the southeast after the 10:20 a.m. liftoff, but the flight website tracker showed them heading north-northeast, toward Spokane, Wash.

About five hours into the flight, the tracker showed they had gone about 30 miles before turning back to the south.

Thunderstorms broke over Bend, and the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for eastern Oregon.

The flight was a warm-up for plans to fly a tandem lawn chair balloon rig in Baghdad sometime in the future.

“My target is to inspire young people, especially in the Mideast,” Lafta said. “I want to tell them, ‘I didn’t give up. Keep standing. Smile. This is the way to defeat terrorists.’”

Couch said receiving Lafta’s email in the dead of winter, at a time he was bored, inspired him to go aloft again.

“I never really thought I would do it again,” Couch said. “I thought I had had enough excitement.

“I started thinking, it sounds fun. It takes six months after you land for your brain to get over the fear and just the emotions.”

They planned to fly over Iraq last year but ran into problems getting permission from the government.

“I really enjoy being able to share the experience with somebody else,” Couch said. “I could only tell people about the experience,” until now.

Couch has wanted to float like a cloud since he was a child, and was inspired by a TV show about the 1982 lawn chair flight over Los Angeles by truck driver Larry Walters, who gained urban myth immortality.

Couch’s first time up was in 2006, when he got only 99 miles before the balloons started popping and he had to bail out.

In 2007, he flew 193 miles before running low on helium and landing in the sagebrush of Eastern Oregon.

In 2008, things went much more smoothly. After lifting off at dawn July 5 with the help of scores of volunteers, he floated at 35 mph across the high desert, reaching his goal of crossing the Idaho border. That’s when he pulled out his trusty BB rifle and shot out enough balloons to come to earth in a pasture outside the tiny farming community of Cambridge, Idaho.

Couch was at it again in 2010, racing another lawn chair balloonist in a flight that went about 70 miles.

He had hoped to set a world record this time. None of his flights have been certified by Guinness World Records. The current record listed by Guinness for the longest duration flight by helium balloons is held by Jonathan Trappe for a flight of 13 hours, 36 minutes, 57 seconds over North Carolina in April 2010.

Couch’s wife, Susan, said she still got nervous, even after several safe flights.

“There’s a lot that could do wrong,” she said. “I’m fine until I see him getting smaller and smaller in the sky.”