Weather cuts short trip of U.S., Iraqi "lawn chair" balloonists

BEND, Oregon Sun Jul 15, 2012 3:28am EDT

1 of 3. Fareed Lafta and Kent Couch (not shown) lift off from Couch's Stop & Go Mini Mart in Bend, Oregon July 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dan Cook

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BEND, Oregon (Reuters) - Two men sitting in lawn chairs tied to 350 helium-filled balloons failed in their bid on Saturday to set a world record for the longest two-man cluster balloon flight when bad weather forced them down well short of their destination.

A crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people watched as American Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta of Iraq lifted off on Saturday morning from the parking lot of Couch's Stop & Go Mini Mart in the Oregon town of Bend.

They soared into clear skies with light winds, perched underneath balloons in the colors of the U.S. and Iraqi flags. Half an hour later, they were a speck in the skies northeast of Bend, drifting toward Idaho. The pair was equipped with parachutes in case of emergency.

They had been seeking to make a trip of at least 500 miles and register the feat with Guinness World Records.

Couch, who had hoped to make it to Montana on the flight, said before taking off that Lafta, an experienced skydiver, 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.

But bad weather brought the trip to an early end about 30 miles from where it started. Previous flights had taken Couch much farther, including a 2008 flight in which he drifted 235 miles into Idaho.

A post at the Facebook page for the project said wind had turned the balloonists around and pushed them back toward the town of Prineville, Oregon, and that thunderstorms heading toward the area were "simply too much" for the balloons.

A later post said the two men landed near Prineville.

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

"There is perfect peace up there," he said before the flight.

Asked if he contemplated meaning-of-life issues as the balloon rises above the earth, he replied: "I am a God-fearing man, a believer in Jesus Christ. 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." he added. You have 1,400 pounds (635 kg) of lift in the balloons, and 1,350 pounds (612 kg) of weight and ballast. What goes up must come down."

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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