Oregon man takes lawn chair up to 13,000 feet

Oregon man takes lawn chair up to 13,000 feet »Play Video
Balloons suspend Kent Couch in a lawnchair as he floats in the skies near Bend, Ore., Saturday, July 7, 2007. (AP Photo/ The Bulletin, Pete Erickson)
BEND, Ore. (AP) - Last weekend, Bend gas station owner Kent Couch settled down in his lawn chair with some drinks and snacks - and a parachute.

Attached to the lawn chair were 105 balloons of various colors, each 4 feet around. Bundled together, the balloons rise three stories high.

Couch carried a global positioning system device, a two-way radio, a digital camcorder and a cell phone. He also had instruments to measure his altitude and speed and about four plastic bags holding five gallons of water each to act as a ballast - he could turn a spigot, release water and rise.

Destination: Idaho.

Nearly nine hours later, Couch was short of Idaho. But he was 193 miles from home, in a farmer's field near Union, having crossed much of Oregon at 11,000 feet and higher.

Couch, 47, is the latest American to emulate Larry Walters - who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons.

Walters surprised an airline pilot, who radioed the control tower that he had just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The weapon was to shoot balloons and descend. Walters paid a $1,500 penalty for violating air traffic rules. Eleven years later, he committed suicide at age 44.

Why would Couch try such a flight?

"When you're a little kid and you're holding a helium balloon, it has to cross your mind," he told the Bend Bulletin.

"When you're laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them," he told the Bulletin. "This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It's just like that."

It was Couch's second flight.

In September, he got to 15,000 feet on a six-hour trip. Like Walters, he used a BB gun to pop the balloons, but he went into a rapid descent. He jettisoned his goods, including food, drink and BB gun. Eventually, he parachuted to safety.

This time he was better prepared. The balloons had a new configuration, so it was easier to reach up and release a bit of helium instead of simply cutting off a balloon.

To fly, Couch dressed in shirt, sweater, jeans, work boots and sunglasses handed him at the last minute.

He took off at 6:06 a.m. Saturday after kissing his wife, Susan, goodbye and petting his Chihuahua, Isabella.

"See you in Idaho!" he said.

As he made about 25 miles an hour at altitudes of 11,000 feet to 13,000 feet, chase vehicles followed.

A three-car caravan filled with his friends, family and his dog followed Couch as he traveled from below.

Even at two miles high, Couch said, he could hear cattle lowing and children talking. He heard gunshots, which worried him. A black butterfly flew past. He passed through clouds. He said they were fluffy.

Couch stopped when he was down to a gallon of water and just eight pounds of ballast. Concerned about the rugged terrain outside La Grande, including Hells Canyon, Couch decided to come back to earth.

This time, he was able to pop enough balloons to set the craft down, although he suffered rope burns. But once he was down, he jumped out, and the wind grabbed his gear, chair and remaining balloons, sweeping all aloft.

Afterward, Couch said he's thought about ways to improve the trip, especially the landing, but whether he'll take a third trip is up to his wife.

"I'm not saying I won't do it again, but I told her I'd let her decide if I did it again," he said.

Susan Couch said she's thinking about saying no. But she said she was willing to go along with last weekend's trip.

"I know he'd be thinking about it more and more, it would always be on his mind." she said. "This way, at least he's fulfilled his dream."