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Balloonists recount harrowing flight over Oregon

Posted: July 18, 2012 11:00 a.m.
Updated: July 18, 2012 11:00 a.m.

Oregon gas station owner Kent Couch and Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta lifting off from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore.

 

Two men flying matching lawn chairs suspended by helium-filled party balloons over Central Oregon last weekend said Tuesday they were floating along peacefully at 14,000 feet when thunderstorms grabbed control of their homemade craft like a giant hand.

"It was so nice, so beautiful, so peaceful," for the first three hours of the flight, said Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, who joined lawn chair ballooning veteran Kent Couch in an attempt to fly from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore., to Montana as a warm-up for a future flight over Iraq. "I remember I can hear the cow when they moo, the dogs. Everything was so peaceful and so nice.

"Then we were in this thunderstorm."

Couch said it was like some giant hand grabbed hold of their craft.

"It felt like a wind just raced up and grabbed the balloons and just squeezed them," said Couch. "Ten of them popped at one time. It sounded like a string of firecrackers being let off. I would say that's probably where we felt threatened."

Normally, shooting out one or two balloons would cause them to drop, but they were still ascending — fast. When they started to fall, they dropped ballast, but kept falling.

"This makes no sense," said Lafta, a veteran pilot and skydiver.

Couch said Lafta asked if they should jump with the parachutes they strapped on before climbing into their lawn chairs.

"I said, 'I don't want to jump,'" Couch said. "'I'm not ready to jump yet.'

"By the time we got in our landing mode, I wished we would have jumped."

They were buffeted for an hour and a half.

With half their 800 pounds of ballast and nearly half their 350 balloons gone, Couch said they would never make it to Montana, a trip of some 400 miles. Flight by helium-filled party balloons is a constant process of releasing ballast and shooting out balloons, Couch said.

"It was really, really dangerous for us," he said. "The best solution is to get down."

The owner of a gas station and convenience store, Couch started flying lawn chairs in 2006, after seeing a TV show about the 1982 lawn chair flight over Los Angeles by truck driver Larry Walters.

After successfully flying to Idaho in 2008, Couch got an email from Lafta, inviting him to put together a tandem lawn chair for a flight over Iraq to inspire orphans of terrorist attacks. Lafta said he had long wanted to fulfill a childhood dream inspired by the 1980s Care Bears cartoons, about bears with special powers who lived in the clouds.

The flight was scrubbed after failing to secure government permission.

Despite the setback Saturday, both men plan to go ahead with the flight in Iraq, attempting to break an altitude record this October from a site to be determined.

"Why not?" said Lafta. "We have a lot of fun. And more experience that makes us safer in future."

On takeoff they were not concerned about the weather. Forecasts called for lightning storms, but that was hundreds of miles to the east. Winds initially took them northeast, then pushed them back southwest, before they started going east. At one point they were stuck about 20 minutes over the Facebook computer server center in Prineville, Ore., unable to move.

With an eye out for an open spot to land, they started shooting balloons with the Red Ryder BB rifles they each carried in plastic pipe scabbards by their lawn chairs.

"We'd shoot a few and start to descend, but it would lift us back up," Couch said. "I finally got exasperated and really started shooting balloons.

"We felt just like 'The Rifleman,'" a 1950s TV Western. "We were cocking and shooting, cocking and shooting, pretty darn fast."

As they approached the ground, the wind was pushing them along at about 30 mph, and they could see their chase crew below. They dropped a rope, trying for a clearing in some trees, but the heat from the flat ground forced them up. They dropped more ballast to clear some trees, Couch said.

They shot out more balloons and came into a newly mowed hay field, about 40 miles east of their starting point. Banging along the ground, they released two clusters of red balloons to prevent the craft from floating off, then jumped. They couldn't hang on, and the craft floated away anyway, coming to earth on a ranch five miles away. It now rests in Couch's driveway, headed for a museum.

"I made a commitment to Fareed and the orphans of Iraq," to fly again, Couch said. "Otherwise I'm on the ground for good. I think it's out of my system.

"My wife, Susan, says, 'I've heard that before.' She's making me sign a contract."

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