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Man flies chair lifted by balloons

BEND, Ore. - Riding a green lawn chair supported by a rainbow array of more than 150 helium-filled party balloons, Kent Couch took off Saturday in a third bid to fly from central Oregon all the way to Idaho.

Couch kissed his wife and kids goodbye, and patted their shivering Chihuahua, Isabella, before his ground crew gave him a push so he could clear surrounding light poles and a coffee cart.

Then, clutching a big mug of coffee, Couch rose out of the parking lot of his gas station into the bright blue morning sky, cheered by a crowd of spectators.

'If I had the time and money and people, I'd do this every weekend,' Couch said before getting into the chair. 'Things just look different from up there. You've moving so slowly. The best thing is the peace, the serenity.

'You can hear a dog bark at 15,000 feet.'

'He's crazy,' said his wife, Susan. 'It's never been a dull moment since I married him.'

Couch hoped to ride the prevailing wind to the area of McCall, Idaho, about 230 miles east. He travels about 20 mph.

Each balloon gives four pounds of lift. The chair was about 400 pounds, and Couch and his parachute 200 more.

'I'd go to 30,000 feet if I didn't shoot a balloon down periodically,' Couch said.

For that job he carried a Red Ryder BB gun and a blow gun equipped with steel darts. He also had a pole with a hook for pulling in balloons, Global Positioning System tracking devices, an altimeter and a satellite phone.

It was his third flight. In 2006, he had to parachute out after popping too many balloons. And last year he flew 193 miles to the sagebrush of northeastern Oregon, short of his goal.

'I'm not stopping till I get out of state,' he said.

Couch had to dump some of the 45 gallons of cherry Kool-Aid he carried as ballast before he was able to disappear into the distance. 'We wanted some color, and it kind of reminded me of kid days,' he said of the ballast.

Couch was inspired by a TV show about the 1982 lawn chair flight over Los Angeles by truck driver Larry Walters, who gained folk hero fame but was fined $1,500 for violating air traffic rules.

Dozens of volunteers wearing fluorescent green T-shirts with the slogan 'Dream Big' filled Couch's 5-foot-diameter latex balloons and fastened them to the rig carrying his chair. A few balloons popped, and one got away.

'I think it's wonderful he's got guts enough to do it,' retired commercial pilot Bob Banta said. 'I've owned 12 little airplanes, but I've never done anything like this.'

Couch, a veteran of hang gliding and sky diving, estimated the rig cost about $6,000, mostly for helium. Costs were defrayed by corporate sponsors.