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Oregon lawn-chair balloon fliers sail up, then unexpectedly down

July 14, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • Although their flight was cut short by bad weather, Oregon gas station owner Kent Couch and Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta managed a scenic liftoff from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore. They were attempting to fly to Montana.
Although their flight was cut short by bad weather, Oregon gas station owner… (Jeff Barnard / Associated…)

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it was two flying lawn chairs strapped to 350 helium balloons!

In a soaring feat reminiscent of a certain Disney movie, a gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer lifted off in a homemade flying machine in central Oregon on Saturday -- only to be forced down again by storms moving through the area, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The area saw heavy rain and hail as big as nickels, the National Weather Service said.

Hundreds of people had gathered at a Shell gas station in Bend to watch Kent Couch and Iraqi co-pilot Fareed Lafta lift off in their attempt to fly through Oregon, across Idaho and into Montana. They cleared a two-story motel, a coffee stand and a light post.

Just after takeoff, the duo had drifted off-course. They had said they would land by shooting with a BB gun some of the balloons that were keeping them aloft. 

 “The interesting thing is, anybody can do this,” Couch, a veteran lawn-chair pilot, told the AP. “They don't have to sit on the couch" thinking, `I should have done it.’ They can do it.”

Lafta, who skydives and climbs mountains, emailed Couch two years ago after seeing stories of Couch’s lawn-chair aviation attempts.

The tandem expedition in the Northwest was intended as a warm-up for the duo’s next goal, a lawn-chair flight over Baghdad. That journey will require an overnight flight, oxygen masks and a distance of 400-600 miles. They planned a flight for last fall, but Iraqi officials said they couldn’t provide security during takeoff.  

About 90 volunteers helped the duo fill red, white, blue and black helium balloons and arrange them in bunches to represent the U.S. and Iraqi flags. As ballast, they used 800 pounds of red Kool-Aid in 40-gallon barrels.

Couch said he had wanted to be a lawn-chair pilot since he saw a TV show about truck driver Larry Walters, who achieved urban-legend status after using 45 helium balloons to fly a patio chair over Los Angeles in 1982. He was arrested after landing near the control zone for Los Angeles International Airport.

"It was something I had to do," Walters told The Times then. "I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn't done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm."

Couch has tried nearly every possible way to get airborne without getting a pilot’s license, including bungee jumping, skydiving, hang gliding and, of course, “cluster ballooning.”

His cut-short flight was tracked on Couch’s website, which carried this important note for would-be copycats:

"DISCLAIMER: Cluster Ballooning is inherently risky. Kent Couch and Smart Solutions assume NO RESPONSIBILITY for the use or mis-use of information provided on this website."


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