By Russ Niles, Editor-in-Chief
Landing in a thunderstorm is no fun for any pilot but when the aircraft is a couple of lawn chairs suspended under 300 party balloons, the term hard landing takes on a slightly different context. Cluster balloon pilot Kent Couch and his copilot Fareed Lafta, self-described Iraqi adventurer, aborted their bid to fly from Bend, Ore., to Montana just 30 miles from their starting point Saturday after a thunderstorm at 10,000 feet pelted them with hail, snow and turbulence. "They came down hard," said flight organizer Mark Knowles. The duo was unhurt and jumped clear of the contraption, which promptly took off without them. It's not clear where the contrivance ended up.
Couch and Lafta hoped to cover more than 500 miles on the trip and carried sleeping bags to battle the cold they expected at 18,000 feet. They also carried 80 gallons of Kool Aid in two barrels as ballast, along with solar-powered electronic gear and cellphones. They also carried air rifles and dart guns to pop balloons for their descent. Couch saw the flight as a chance to inspire people to act on their dreams but Lafta, who had earlier said he wanted to repeat the flight in his homeland, put a geopolitical spin on the effort. "I want to inspire Iraqis and say we need to defeat terrorists," Lafta said. "We don't need just an Army. We need ideology and to just have fun."