July 8, 2008 in City

Lawn chair pilot makes landing after peaceful flight

Jeff Barnard Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Kent Couch lifts off from his gas station in Bend, Ore., in his lawn chair rigged with more than 150 giant party balloons on Saturday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Soaring over Eastern Oregon at 15,000 feet in a lawn chair rigged with helium-filled party balloons, Kent Couch felt like he was relaxing in his backyard – serene and peaceful – except when a balloon would pop unexpectedly.

“First it would make a noise like a gunshot, then it would shake the whole chair,” Couch said Monday from his home in Bend, safely back on the ground after flying 235 miles in nine hours from his gas station in Bend to a farm field in Idaho. “Every time it happened, even though it happened about 15 times during the whole trip, I’d just reach for the handles of the chair.”

But Couch had plenty of balloons to keep himself aloft: more than 150 of them.

After just two hours of sleep and a breakfast sandwich of egg and bacon on a biscuit from his gas station convenience store, Couch took off at dawn Saturday. Dozens of volunteers helped him inflate and rig the balloons and hundreds of onlookers cheered as he safely cleared light poles and buildings.

“We thought we were having a hard time getting off the ground, but there was a guy behind me hanging onto a tow rope who wasn’t letting go,” said the 48-year-old Couch. “Then when he did let me go, I shot up fast.”

So fast that a chase plane and helicopter couldn’t keep up. They waved as he flew by.

Cruising at 15,000 feet, Couch flew over the Strawberry Mountains, the town of John Day, past the community of Halfway and across the Snake River marking the Idaho border.

“It’s different than looking out from an airplane. It was like looking with God’s eyes down there. Not to take anything away from God. It was like being outside the Earth looking in.”

Couch was too high for birds to fly by, but he did see one plane. He heard dogs barking, cows mooing, a chain saw, crows, gunshots and one person yelling.

“I thought, ‘Hey, they’re yelling up at me.’ So I said, ‘Hellooooooo, hellooooooo,’ but I never heard anything back.”

Couch said his main worry was clouds – pilots had warned him about the turbulence – but found nearly all of them parted to let him through.

Even passing through one, he never got the childhood feeling he was looking for of floating on a cloud. Instead, he said it was “just like sitting in your backyard in your lawn chair.”

His ears popped periodically, like “when you are going over mountains in your car.”

Couch kept busy during the flight: using his Red Rider BB gun to pop balloons to control his elevation, checking his oxygen level, “or looking at the view.”

At times he got a “sensation of just pure peace. Kind of a tranquil or serenity feeling, looking at what God created down there.”

“When you’re traveling like that, you can’t feel yourself moving. There’s absolutely no wind. I actually hit 49 mph up there. But there is not a feeling like you’re moving.”

When Couch saw Farewell Bend on the Snake River coming up he knew he would soon be in Idaho, so started looking for a place to land. His chase crew had not been able to keep up with him, so he was on his own. He had lost 15 balloons that popped on their own, and another 15 he popped to keep from going too high.

“I was getting anxious to come down,” Couch said. “Nine hours sitting in that chair is a long time. The parachute was poking me in the back. I was uncomfortable. I just can’t sit still for so long.”

He spotted the tiny farming community of Cambridge, Idaho, surrounded by green fields, pulled his BB rifle from the scabbard on his chair, and started shooting out balloons.

“You have to just point it like a shotgun,” said Couch. “It’s pretty hard to miss. I wanted to make sure I didn’t hit two, so I always aimed.”

Satisfied with his rate of descent, he cut away the dead balloons and stowed what gear he could. He tossed his space blanket, because he couldn’t get it folded back up and it was in the way.

“It was like a map trying to fold the thing up,” he said. “I never could fold a map.”

Seeing power lines ahead, he dumped some ballast, rose over them, and shot out two more balloons. The balloons were stretched out and didn’t pop. A pencil-size hole opened up and helium hissed out, controlling his descent.

As he neared the ground, about eight horses chased him. Townspeople, who had seem him fly over, pulled up in cars and pickups and ran to greet him.

Couch tried to fly to Idaho last year, but came down in northeastern Oregon. Owners of the field where he landed chased him off.

But Couch got a welcoming reception this time.

One woman told Couch: “Honey, I been praying for you since yesterday. Thank God you’re safe.”

A lady named Joy said to Couch, “Thank you for landing in my field.”

Couch said a man walked up to him, “sticks this big bear paw of a hand at me and shakes my hand. He reaches into his pocket. I’m wondering what he’s going to do. He pulls out a can of beer.

“It was still cold. He must have been thinking of me as he went out the door.

“I don’t even drink beer, but I drank that one. I couldn’t say no to that guy.”

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