Ore. man completes flight of fancy - in a lawn chair

Ore. man completes flight of fancy - in a lawn chair
Kent Couch leaves his gas station in Bend, Ore., on Saturday, July 5, 2008, riding a lawn chair rigged with more than 150 giant party balloons in an attempt to fly to Idaho. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

BEND, Ore. (AP) - Using his trusty BB gun to help him return to Earth, 48-year-old gas station owner Kent Couch realized his boyhood dream Saturday of flying a lawn chair rigged with helium-filled party balloons more than 200 miles across the Oregon high desert to land in a farm field in Idaho.

Couch created a sensation in the tiny farming community of Cambridge, Idaho, where he touched down safely in an empty pasture and was soon greeted by dozens of people who gave him drinks of water, local plumber Mark Hetz told The Associated Press.

"My wife works at the City Market," said Hetz. "She called and said, 'The balloon guy in the lawn chair just flew by the market and if you look the door you can see him.

"We go outside to look and lo and behold there he is. He's flying by probably 100 to 200 feet off the ground.

"He takes his BB gun and shoots some balloons to lower himself to the ground. When he hit the ground he released all the little tiny balloons. People were racing down the road with cameras. They were all talking and laughing."

Couch had covered about 235 miles in about nine hours after lifting off with the dawn from his gas station riding in a green lawn chair rigged with a rainbow array of more than 150 giant party balloons.

It began after Couch, clutching a big mug of coffee, kissed his wife and kids goodbye, and patted their shivering Chihuahua, Isabella, on the head.

After spilling off some of his cherry-flavored Kool-Aid that served as ballast, Couch got a push from the ground crew so he could clear surrounding light poles and soared over a coffee cart and across U.S. Highway 20 into a bright blue sky.

"If I had the time and money and people, I'd do this every weekend," Couch said before getting into the chair. "Things just look different from up there. You've moving so slowly. The best thing is the peace, the serenity.

"Originally, I wanted to do it because of boyhood dreams. I don't know about girls, but I think most guys look up in the sky and wish they could ride on a cloud."

Couch's wife, Susan, said he was crazy, but she wanted to go with him next time.

"It's never been a dull moment since I married him," she said.

This was Couch's third balloon flight. He realized it would be possible after watching a TV show about the 1982 lawn chair flight over Los Angeles of truck driver Larry Walters, who gained folk hero fame, but was fined $1,500 for violating air traffic rules.

In 2006, Couch had to parachute out after popping too many balloons. And last year he flew 193 miles to the sagebrush of northeastern Oregon, short of his goal.

"I'm not stopping till I get out of state," he said.

To that end, he ordered more balloons. Dozens of volunteers wearing fluorescent green T-shirts with the slogan "Dream Big" filled latex balloons 5 feet in diameter, tied them to strings with a zip tie, and tied clusters of six balloons each to a tiny carabiner clip. A few popped, and one got away before they could be tied on.

"I think it's wonderful he's got guts enough to do it," said retired commercial pilot Bob Banta. "I've owned 12 little airplanes, but I've never done anything like this."

Each balloon gives four pounds of lift. The chair was about 400 pounds, and Couch and his parachute 200 more.

"I'd go to 30,000 feet if I didn't shoot a balloon down periodically," Couch said.

For that job he carried a Red Ryder BB gun and a blow gun equipped with steel darts. He also had a pole with a hook for pulling in balloons, a parachute in case anything went wrong, a handheld Global Positioning System device with altimeter, a satellite phone, and two GPS tracking devices. One was one for him, the other for the chair, which got away in the wind as he landed last year.

Each cluster of balloons was clipped by a heavier line to the aluminum tube frame underneath the chair. The ballast tanks filled with the cherry Kool-Aid were attached to the bottom of the frame.

"We wanted some color, and it kind of reminded me of kid days," Couch said.

For food he had some boiled eggs, jerky and chocolate.

Couch flew hang gliders and skydived before taking up lawn-chair flights. He said he imagined being a child holding a balloon and taking off.

Couch estimated the rig cost about $6,000, mostly for helium. Costs were defrayed by corporate sponsors.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.