x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Storm leaves balloonists deflated

Iraqi and US adventurers are forced to abort their bizarre journey after only seven hours.

Fareed Lafta and Kent Couch (not shown) were jubilant during lift-off but came down with a thud seven hours later.
Fareed Lafta and Kent Couch (not shown) were jubilant during lift-off but came down with a thud seven hours later.

BEND, Oregon // An Iraqi adventurer and the owner of a petrol station who were trying to fly from Oregon to Montana in garden chairs suspended under party balloons were brought back down to earth with a bump after thunderstorms forced them to abort their flight.

Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta, a former Iraqi weightlifting champion whose family moved to Dubai in 2003, had hoped to break the world record for the longest two-man cluster-balloon flight.

But they were forced to descend about seven hours into their flight on Saturday. They came down near a reservoir 48 kilometres east of their starting point.

After they scrambled out of the contraption, it floated back up, said the flight organiser, Mark Knowles. "They came down hard," he said. "The craft went back up. It's sitting up in the sky right above us."

About 90 volunteers and several hundred onlookers earlier counted down and then cheered as the pair lifted off from Mr Couch's Shell petrol station at the start of their journey. The duo safely cleared a coffee stand, a lamp post and a two-storey motel as they got going.

Before lift-off, Mr Couch, who is a veteran of several garden-chair balloon flights, said: "The interesting thing is, anybody can do this. They don't have to sit on the couch thinking: 'I should have done it'. They can do it."

Mr Lafta, a mountain climber and sky diver, said he had shared Mr Couch's childhood dream of floating like a cloud and sent him an email two years ago after reading accounts of his earlier flights.

"I want to inspire Iraqis and say we need to defeat terrorists," Mr Lafta said. "We don't need just an army. We need ideology and to just have fun."

Volunteers filled 350 1.5-metre red, white, blue and black balloons with helium and tied them to Mr Couch's homemade tandem garden-chair rig.

The balloons were arranged in bunches to represent the colours of the US and Iraqi flags. An American flag flew from the bottom of the framework supporting the chairs.

Just before lift-off, they had to ask children in the crowd to return four balloons to provide extra lift.

The rig included 360 kilograms of ballast - red Kool-Aid soft drink in 150-litre barrels. Along with a GPS, navigation gear, a satellite phone, oxygen, two-way radios, eight cameras and parachutes, they were carrying two Red Ryder BB rifles and a pair of blowguns to shoot and burst balloons to come to earth when the time was right.

"The landings are very tough," Mr Couch said. "I don't think about the landings until I have to land. That's how I do it."

Expecting to float at 4,572m to 5,485m, where temperatures drop to near minus 17°C, they packed sleeping bags to stay warm.

Electronic gear was powered by a solar panel. A flare gun was tied on to the framework for emergencies.

They also carried the ashes of a family friend to spread over the desert.

The two men had hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down in the morning somewhere in south-west Montana. The flight was a warm-up for plans to fly a tandem garden-chair balloon rig in Baghdad.

"My target is to inspire young people, especially in [the Middle East]," said Mr Lafta. "I want to tell them: 'I didn't give up. Keep standing. Smile. This is the way to defeat terrorists'."