UPDATE 1-American, Iraqi 'lawn chair' balloonists lift off

Sat Jul 14, 2012 3:22pm EDT

(Updates with balloon launched)

By Dan Cook

BEND, Ore., July 14 (Reuters) - Two men sitting in lawn chairs tied to a cluster of 350 helium-filled balloons lifted into the Oregon sky on Saturday in a bid to break the Guinness World Record for the longest two-man cluster balloon flight.

A crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people watched as Kent Couch and his flying companion Fareed Lafta, of Iraq, lifted off from the parking lot of Couch's Stop & Go Mini Mart in Bend, Oregon at 10:21 a.m. local time Saturday.

They soared into clear skies with light winds. Half an hour later they were a tiny red, white and blue speck in the skies northeast of Bend, drifting toward Idaho. The pair are equipped with parachutes in case of emergency.

"It's a preflight for our trip to Iraq to bring more awareness to the orphans," Couch said before the flight. He said Lafta contacted him a year ago and asked to join him on a cluster balloon flight to raise funds for children orphaned by the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Couch, who hopes to make it to Montana on this flight, invited Lafta to pick out a comfortable lawn chair and join him.

"A lot of people have contacted me over the years about flying, but Fareed was by far the most sincere," Couch said. "I went to the orphanages with him and saw the children there. And Fareed also has lots of sky-diving experience. Now I'll have someone to share my inflight experiences with."

Previous flights have taken Couch as far as 235 miles (378 kilometres) in 2008. He hopes to go 500 miles (805 km) on Saturday and register the feat with Guinness as a world record.

To Couch, the real appeal of cluster balloon flight is the sensation of being in the open air at 15,000 feet (4.6 km).

"There is perfect peace up there," he said. "Even though the breeze is carrying you, you feel no wind at all."

Does he ever contemplate meaning-of-life issues as the balloon rises above the earth?

"I am a God-fearing man, a believer in Jesus Christ," he said. "But I don't consider cluster balloon flight death-defying. When people say that it kind of just eggs me on."

"Balloon flight is really quite simple. You have 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of lift in the balloons, and 1,350 pounds (612 kg) of weight and ballast. What goes up must come down." (Editing By Cynthia Johnston, Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)

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