Weather foils lawn-chair flight

Ballooning pair land to avoid a looming thunderstorm

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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 made a hard landing Saturday after having to abort their flight due to thunderstorms -- but their craft kept flying.

Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta were about seven hours into their flight when they were forced to descend, coming down near a reservoir about 30 miles east of their starting point. But after they scrambled out of the contraption, it floated up again, flight organizer Mark Knowles said.

"They came down hard," Knowles said by cellphone. "The craft went back up. It's sitting up in the sky right above us."

Earlier Saturday, about 90 volunteers and several hundred onlookers counted down and cheered as the pair lifted off from Couch's Shell gas station in Bend.

Volunteers had 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 duo safely cleared a two-story motel, a coffee stand and a light post, then floated about 30 miles north. Winds pushed them back to the south before sending them to the east, the direction they wanted to go.

But gathering thunderstorms forced them to abort the flight, descending from an altitude of about 10,000 feet, Knowles said.

Before the flight, Couch said landing was the scariest part of his several lawn chair balloon flights.

"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."

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

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

Their 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 carried two Red Ryder BB rifles and two blowguns to shoot out enough balloons to come to earth when the time is right.

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.

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.

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.

Couch has said he 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.

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— Couch Balloons: http://www.couchballoons.com/track.