Pair lifts off in tandem lawn chair balloon flight
BEND, Ore. (AP) -- 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.
"I never really thought I would do it again," Couch, the veteran of several lawn chair balloon flights, said before takeoff. "I thought I had had enough excitement."
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.
The rig includes 800 pounds of ballast -- red Kool-Aid in 40-gallon barrels. Besides a GPS, satellite phone, and parachutes, they were carrying a Red Ryder BB rifle to shoot out enough balloons to come to earth when the time is right.
The two men hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down Sunday morning somewhere in southwestern Montana. But winds initially carried them in a southeastern direction after the 10:20 a.m. liftoff.
The flight is a warm-up for plans to fly a tandem lawn chair balloon rig in Baghdad sometime in the future.
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.
This time he hopes to set a world record. 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.