Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pair lifts off in lawn chair balloon flight

Jeff Barnard  /  AP
Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, right, and Bend, Ore., gas station owner Kent Couch lift off Saturday from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore., as they attempt to fly some 360 miles to Montana.
updated 24 minutes ago
An Oregon gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer took flight Saturday aboard a pair of lawn chairs suspended from helium-filled party balloons in an attempt to fly across Oregon and Idaho and into Montana.
About 90 volunteers and several hundred onlookers counted down and then cheered as Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta lifted off from Couch's Shell gas station. The duo safely cleared a two-story motel, a coffee stand and a light post.
"The interesting thing is, anybody can do this," said Couch, the veteran of several lawn chair balloon flights. "They don't have to sit on the couch thinking, 'I should have done it.' They can do it."
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.
Just before liftoff, they had to ask children in the crowd to return four balloons to provide extra lift.
The rig includes 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 is right.
"The landings are very tough," Couch said. "I don't think about the landings until I have to land. That's how I do it."
Expecting to float at 15,000-18,000 feet, where temperatures drop to near zero, they packed sleeping bags to stay warm.
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Electronic gear was powered by a solar panel. A flare gun was tied onto the framework for emergencies. They also carried the ashes of a family friend to spread over the high desert.
Lance Schliep, an appliance repairman, helped Couch with the latest design, made entirely from items bought at local hardware stores and junk from Couch's garage.
"It's about as redneck as you can get," Couch said.
Couch said their biggest challenge was finding enough helium to fill all the balloons. They sent as far as the Midwest for bottles. Each balloon that popped on inflation represented a $50 loss, but Couch would not divulge the total cost.
The two men hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down Sunday 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.
Image: Lafta and Couch lift off from Couch's Stop & Go Mini Mart in Bend, Oregon
Staff  /  Reuters
Fareed Lafta and Kent Couch (L) lift off from Couch's Stop & Go Mini Mart in Bend, Oregon, July 14, 2012. The two men, sitting in lawn chairs tied to a cluster of 350 helium-filled balloons lift-off in a bid to break the Guinness World Record for the longest two-man cluster balloon flight. REUTERS/Dan Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY)
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. It wasn't immediately clear if the weather affected the balloonists. A call to the chase team was not immediately returned.
The flight is 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.

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