'Balloon-atic' in lawn chair aims to fly 300 miles

Image: Cluster balloonist Kent Couch, sitting in a lawn chair, ascends past Mount Bachelor
Sitting in a lawn chair, cluster balloonist Kent Couch ascends past Mount Bachelor to his cruising altitude of around 11,000 feet on July 7, 2007, near Bend, Ore.Pete Erickson / The Bulletin via AP FILE
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like many Americans, Kent Couch plans to settle into a lawn chair during the Fourth of July weekend. Unlike everyone else, his feet will dangle high above the lawn.

Couch is set to launch himself skyward on Saturday aboard his lawn chair, which will be attached to 150 giant latex party balloons filled with helium. His goal: to fly more than 300 miles from his gas station in central Oregon to somewhere in Idaho, preferably Boise.

It will be his third attempt to fly by the seat of his pants to Idaho — he doesn't wear a seat belt.

"The first time, nobody wanted to be involved at all," Couch told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. "They were thinking I was a lunatic, I mean a balloon-atic. My friends shunned me. But this time it's different. "

He now has a corporate sponsor, a team of volunteers and his wife Susan's blessing.

Couch, 48, was inspired to go up, up and away by the 1982 lawn-chair flight over Los Angeles by truck driver Larry Walters, whose adventure brought him a measure of fame, but also a $1,500 fine for violating air traffic rules.

Pellet gun
Couch made his first ascent in 2006, floating for six hours before shooting out a few balloons with his pellet gun to descend. He apparently shot out too many balloons because he had to use his parachute to land. He never found the lawn chair.

Last year, he flew 193 miles before running low on helium and landing in a patch of sagebrush. A gust of wind blew away that chair. It was found in May by a ranchers checking the fence line on their eastern Oregon property.

Couch has appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." He has enjoyed his time in the limelight, but said he isn't flying a lawn chair for fame and fortune.

'Navigational issues'
Cluster ballooning is inherently risky, but the ride is generally carefree, he said.

"When you're up there, there's not much stress," he said. "There's a little stress on the way down. A few navigational issues you've got to deal with. But there's nothing, really, I can do but enjoy it."

With corporate sponsorship this year, he says he's much better equipped and hopes to cross the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon and make it to Idaho and beyond. He figures the rig costs about $6,000, mostly for helium.

The balloons are tied to a framework attached to a reclining lawn chair. He is using 15-gallon barrels as a water ballast, which he can drain to gain altitude.

"If I get up around 15,000 feet, I'll pop a couple balloons," Couch said. "If I get too low, I'll release some water. All the way you go it's like a seesaw, up and down, up and down. You can't feel yourself going up and down. You have to look at the altimeter."

Couch will have a finger clip to monitor the oxygen level in his blood and a tank of oxygen should he venture too high. He'll have a GPS tracking device attached to his chair and another in his pocket, allowing his location to be monitored on his Web site.

Duct tape and beef jerky
He'll bring duct tape and zip ties for emergency repairs, extra clothes and a blanket to ward off the cold at higher altitudes. He'll munch on beef jerky, boiled eggs and chocolate.

"You don't want to eat much," he said. "There's no bathrooms up there on that chair."

If all goes well this year, the lawn-chair pilot says he'd like to fly across the English Channel and even Australia.

"I don't mind them thinking I'm nuts," Couch said. "I've done my research and I feel plenty confident."