July 18, 2012 in City

Lawn-chair flight had scary ups, downs

Jeff Barnard Associated Press

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.

“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. “Then we were in this thunderstorm.”

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

“It felt like a wind just raced up and grabbed the balloons and just squeezed them,” Couch said. “Ten of them popped at one time. It sounded like a string of firecrackers being let off.”

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.

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.

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

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 that lived in the clouds.

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

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.

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.

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