Tandem lawn-chair balloon riders land hard

An American gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer trying to fly to Montana from Oregon in tandem lawn chairs suspended from party balloons made a hard landing Saturday.

But home-made rig climbs back into the air

Thunderstorms ended an attempt by Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, left, and Bend, Ore., gas station owner Kent Couch to fly to Montana from Oregon in tandem lawn chairs floating beneath helium-filled balloons. (Jeff Barnard/Associated Press)

An American gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer trying to fly to Montana from Oregon in tandem lawn chairs suspended from party balloons made a hard landing Saturday after thunderstorms forced them to abort their flight.

Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta were about seven hours into their flight when they were forced to descend, coming down near a reservoir about 48 kilometres 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."

Kent Couch and Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta lift off Saturday from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore. Jeff Barnard/Associated Press
Earlier on Saturday, about 90 volunteers and several hundred onlookers counted down and then cheered as the pair lifted off from Couch's Shell gas station. The duo safely cleared a two-storey motel, a coffee stand and a light post.

"The interesting thing is, anybody can do this," Couch, the veteran of several lawn chair balloon flights, said before the flight. "They don't have to sit on the couch thinking, 'I should have done it.' They can do it."

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 1.5-metre 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 colours of the American and Iraqi flags. An American flag flew from the bottom of the framework supporting the chairs.

Just before liftoff, they had to ask children in the crowd to return four balloons to provide extra lift.

The rig included 360 kilograms of ballast — red Kool-Aid in 40-gallon (150-litre) barrels. Besides a GPS, navigation gear, satellite phone, oxygen, two-way radios, eight cameras, and parachutes, they were carrying two Red Ryder BB rifles and a pair of blowguns to shoot out enough balloons to come to earth when the time is right.

"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."


Expecting to float at between 14,000 and 18,000 feet , where temperatures drop to near zero F, they packed sleeping bags to stay warm. 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.

Couch said their biggest challenge was finding enough helium to fill all the balloons. They sent as far as the Midwest for bottles. Each balloon that popped on inflation represented a $50 loss, but Couch would not divulge the total cost.

The two men hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down Sunday morning somewhere in southwestern Montana. The flight was a warm-up for plans to fly a tandem lawn chair balloon rig in Baghdad sometime in the future.

Inspired by email

"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.

"I really enjoy being able to share the experience with somebody else," Couch said. "I could only tell people about the experience," until now.

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. Saturday's flight was Couch's third unsuccessful attempt to set a world record.