(Updates with balloon launched)
By Dan Cook
BEND, Ore., July 14 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)