x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai balloon duo to rise above Iraq's woes for orphans

An American and an Iraqi are preparing to fly over Iraq beneath hundreds of party balloons at a record height of 7,620 metres.

The cluster balloonist Kent Couch is planning another adventure in Iraq. He is pictured soaring past Mount Bachelor in Oregon in 2007.
The cluster balloonist Kent Couch is planning another adventure in Iraq. He is pictured soaring past Mount Bachelor in Oregon in 2007.

DUBAI // They might look like an odd couple but they are a match made for the heavens.

Fareed Lafta, 33, is an Iraqi daredevil based in Dubai who has skydived over Mount Everest, the North Pole, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kent Couch, 51, is an American master of "cluster ballooning" and has flown hundreds of miles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons, just as in the movie Danny Deckchair.

The two men, who hold world records for their exploits, have now joined forces in Dubai to claim a few more.

This week, they began preparing to fly over Iraq by cluster-balloon at the record height of 7,620 metres, and for the longest distance yet of 650km.

To survive the 40-hour journey next spring they will have to endure subfreezing temperatures, breathe through oxygen masks, not eat solid foods and, for many hours, fly in darkness.

Besides collecting more world records and fulfilling their need for adrenalin, they hope their stunt will bring a bit of cheer to Iraqi war orphans and draw international attention to the children's plight.

"I hope we will give them, for a couple days, a reason to smile," said Mr Lafta. "We hope this will inspire NGOs to work in Iraq and help children."

He spent a month in Iraq securing permission for the flight, which will begin in a stadium filled with children in Baghdad and end in Basra, with Mr Lafta skydiving off first and Mr Couch making a gradual landing.

Mr Lafta has also secured backing from the Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and other senior officials.

The trip has attracted so much interest that the men have postponed their original take-off date, which was scheduled for next week, until March to accommodate more sponsors.

Mr Lafta is contributing his experience from previous adventures, which include climbing Mount Everest and training in Russia to be Iraq's first astronaut. In his spare time he free-dives and teaches yoga.

On his advice, the pair will wear thermal clothing similar to that Mr Lafta wore to climb the world's tallest mountain. They will eat a nutrient-rich goo that is released as urine and that he used in space training.

The two men and their families will also spend time getting to know each other so they can build trust and learn to work together, another lesson Mr Lafta picked up in space training.

Mr Couch is building the balloon craft. Before arriving in Dubai he shipped hundreds of party balloons in the colours of the Iraqi flag, and two lawn chairs.

He will also prepare the frame that holds the chairs together, the jugs of Kool-Aid that will be released to ascend, and the BB guns needed to pop the balloons to descend.

Other equipment will include a GPS, satellite phone and radio to communicate with air-traffic control, which will track their location and redirect any planes coming near it.

At such heights the balloons may swell and pop on their own - a problem Mr Couch plans to test with trial balloons tagged with locating devices.

The two have also engaged in cultural exchange. Mr Lafta will soon visit the US for the first time and Mr Couch, in his first trip to the Middle East, will tour Iraq and Dubai.

One trait the two share, oddly enough, is a love of utter calmness.

Mr Lafta said his adventures had taught him to relax, no matter how high the pressure.

"It's so nice to be always happy, to be always calm," he said. "If you panic or if you start to be crazy, you will not solve any problems."

Drifting by balloon brings a similar sense of serenity, like floating on a cloud, Mr Couch said.

"The feeling of floating up there is to me got to be as pure as you can get," he said.

"We're going with the wind, so there's no wind. You could have a Kleenex on your lap and it won't blow off."

Soon enough they will both know what that feels like.

"It's the best part," Mr Couch said. "To have a friend to go with."

chuang@thenational.ae