Oregon man prepares to pilot lawn chair over Baghdad
Some men see lawn chairs in the sky and ask, "Why?" Some, though, imagine attaching the chairs to hundreds of balloons, strapping themselves in the seat, donning oxygen masks and flying straight over Baghdad.
Kent Couch, who runs a gas station in Bend, Ore., is such a man. Couch boarded a flight to the Middle East on Thursday, setting out on an adventure that involves becoming the first lawn chair balloonist to traverse the now-more-or-less peaceful skies over Iraq -- and raise money for Iraqi children.
Couch plans to join Iraqi extreme sport enthusiast Fareed Lafta, who has said he hopes (later) to become Iraq's first man in space. The two men are scheduled to lift off in tandem Nov. 15 from Baghdad's Green Zone on lawn chairs fitted with some 300 balloons and soar over Iraq at 25,000 feet for 24 hours -- enough to set a new world record in the arcane field of cluster ballooning.
The flight is to coincide with a government-sponsored youth conference in Baghdad, and will require the two men to remain aloft overnight, outfitted with oxygen masks for a journey of 400 to 600 miles (depending on the wind, of course).
Couch toldthe AP's Jeff Barnard that he has already shipped the necessary party balloons and other equipment over to Lafta, an Iraqi native who lives in Dubai.
"I said, 'Do you have any lawn chairs?' He says, 'What?' I emailed a picture of one, and he said, 'I've never seen one of those. Better send a couple.' So I sent over a couple."
Couch brings to the enterprise the necessary experience. He already has made several long-distance lawn-chair-balloon flights, including a successful 235-mile journey from Oregon to Idaho in 2008. An earlier attempt on a similar route failed in 2007 -- Couch made it only as far as North Powder, Ore., near La Grande, and touched down off of Interstate 84, having lost contact with his chair and balloons in the process.
Nearly a year later, rancher Bonnie Colton found the chair, the shredded balloons and Couch's flight bag in her field, more than 14 miles from where Couch himself had landed. "It was eerie,” she told the Bend Bulletin. "I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.' Where’s the body?"
Couch was notat the controls of the fondly remembered 1982 lawn chair flight in Los Angeles. That was Larry Walters, a truck driver who piloted a patio chair and 45 helium weather balloons from San Pedro to an area in Long Beach near the control zone for Los Angeles International Airport (a flight that reached 16,000 feet and ended with Walters' arrest).
"It was something I had to do," he told The Times then. "I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn't done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm."
As for Lafta, he is also no stranger to airborne shenanigans. According to his website, he took part in the first-ever parachute jump over Mt. Everest in 2009. "We jumped from 30,000 feet, only about 1,500 feet or so above the peak of Mt.Everest," Lafta said in an interview with the British newspaper, the Guardian.
"It was amazing, truly amazing, to be soaring above Mt. Everest. For a few minutes, I was emperor of world. I reached nirvana, absolute happiness."
The biggest challenge now, Couch told Oregon television station KTVZ, is to make sure that winds don't push them off course. "The fear is if we drift to Iran, which is only about 85 miles from Baghdad," he said. "We would just have to ... come back down, because I'm not going to gamble being in Iran for very long."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: In July 7, 2007, cluster balloonist Kent Couch, sitting in a lawn chair, ascends near Bend, Ore., past Mt. Bachelor to his cruising altitude at the start of his attempt to fly to Idaho. Credit: Pete Erickson / Bend Bulletin