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Lawn chair pilots: Balloons kept taking us up -- and into storm

July 18, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • Gas station owner Kent Couch, right, conferring with Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta before taking off from Bend, Ore., in tandem lawn chairs suspended from helium-filled balloons.
Gas station owner Kent Couch, right, conferring with Iraqi adventurer… (Jeff Barnard / Associated…)

SEATTLE -- When Kent Couch took off in his lawn chair last weekend and, hoisted by hundreds of balloons, pointed it toward Montana, he figured there was about a 90% chance he’d make it at least to Idaho.

But that was before he and co-pilot Fareed Lafta ran into a terrifying series of thunderstorms that tossed them and their flimsy aluminum chairs around the sky like toys — and the two men focused mainly on how to safely reunite themselves with the ground.

Scared? No time to be scared, the two men said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Bend, Ore., where Couch operates a gas station when he isn’t piloting chairs. “We were scared, but we just put it behind our back, because we needed now to focus on how to solve this problem,” said Lafta, who traveled to Oregon from his native Iraq for the aborted adventure.

“He called it fun. I would call it an adrenaline rush,” Couch said.

Couch, who successfully piloted a lawn chair to Idaho in 2008, had planned to set a new world’s record with Lafta, an adventurer in his own right who has parachuted over Mt. Everest and visited the North Pole.

With much fanfare, the two men took off Saturday from Bend in connected lawn chairs. They climbed quickly and easily to 13,000 feet, donning thermal suits for the frigid weather. The “aircraft” was drifting lazily to the northeast at 12 mph when, after traveling about 35 miles, it suddenly slowed to 3 mph — and changed direction.

“That wasn’t expected at all. We’re not meteorologists, but we did pretty good due diligence on the weather, Couch said.

“But with that 3 mph thing, we were barely moving,” he said. “And we started looking west, and we saw some big thunder clouds coming.”

The two men at first were encouraged: The clouds might well get behind them and push them toward their goal in Montana. Instead, the clouds began to close in ominously around them.

“By the time we were in the air four hours, we were pretty much circled, perimeter-wise, by those big, ugly clouds, and we weren’t going to get anywhere,” Couch said.

The two men considered a fallback. They might have to give up the distance record, but if they could manage to just hover over Oregon for 12½ hours, they could still set a time-aloft record — for lawn chairs, anyway.

But the thunder clouds had other plans.

Hoping to find more favorable winds, the two men threw over ballast to allow the craft to rise, but as it did, some of the balloons began popping— probably, Couch figures, due to the unusual air pressure around the clouds. It began snowing and sleeting — also not good for balloons.

The two men pulled out the Red Ryder BB rifles they were carrying just for this purpose and began shooting out a few of the balloons in an attempt to descend, thinking they could go below the clouds and get away from them. But then powerful thermal currents began lifting them uncontrollably.

“For a while it was out of control. After shooting a lot of balloons, we would start to get down, but we were still under the control of the thunderstorm, and it would take us up and take us down. The vertical speed was 700 or 800 feet per minute ascent or descent. For four hours we struggled with this,” Lafta said.

At one point, a big thermal lifted them suddenly upward, and 10 to 12 of their balloons popped all at once. “It sounded like a firecracker string going off,” Couch said. And still the men kept ascending.

None of this was in the script: When you pop balloons, you’re supposed to go down, not up. “What do you do? Shoot more balloons?” Couch said.

The fear was that they would shoot so many balloons they would no longer have enough to hold them aloft when the thunderstorm updrafts ended — and that they'd start plummeting to earth. On the other hand, they needed to get down, and soon.  The men already had missed two potential landing sites as the thermals kept the chairs aloft. The third one, an alfalfa field at the bottom of a ravine, was at hand. They kept firing.

“We looked like ‘The Rifleman’ on TV,” Couch said, referring to the Chuck Connors television series from the early 1960s. “We were both just pumping and shooting, pumping and shooting,” he said.

“We paid the price for it: We came in hard. But we did not want to miss that landing site again.”

How hard was it? The aircraft GPS they were carrying didn’t say for sure. “It tells you how fast you’re coming down until you get within 500 feet of landing, and then the screen goes blank. It says, ‘Warning, head-on collision, head-on collision,’ something like that. Within 500 feet, it assumes you’re crashing, so it just yells at you that you’re crashing.”

Cushioning the blow were the four 30-gallon plastic barrels they had tied underneath the chairs, so the two men walked away unhurt.

Are they ready to try it again? Yes and no. Couch said he still plans to join Lafta in Iraq in October for a flight there to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi children orphaned by war. After that, he might be retiring the lawn chairs for good.

“I’m a thrill seeker, but I’m trying to quit that,” he said. “I’ve got a contract signed with my wife that I’ll never do it again.”

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Follow Kim on Twitter @kimmurphy. Email: kim.murphy@latimes.com

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