Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lawn chair balloonist looks back to the skies

Is it just me but with his name, should he not be trying for a larger seat??

By Sheila G. Miller / The Bulletin

Published: December 26. 2007 5:00AM PST

In July, Bend resident Kent Couch made headlines around the world when he climbed into a lawn chair attached to dozens of helium balloons and floated nearly to Idaho.

“I still get about an e-mail a day about that,” Couch said.

After his story appeared in The Bulletin, The Associated Press picked it up and it appeared in newspapers worldwide. The event set off a whirlwind of media appearances, and Couch, 47, was written up in such magazines as National Geographic and New York Magazine.

Now, at the close of 2007, everything is pretty much back to normal. Couch is busy with a new business venture and is remodeling his gas station at U.S. Highway 20 and Northeast 27th Street in Bend.

He’s also making plans to fly again.

Couch wants to travel to Australia this summer to do a balloon chair trip. That is, after all, the setting of the Indie hit film “Danny Deckchair,” about a man who does something mighty similar to Couch’s trip across Oregon. The film was inspired by California’s Larry Walters, who floated in a lawn chair in 1982. Couch saw a piece on Walters’ trip on the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” and was inspired to try it himself.

Looking for sponsors

Right now, Couch is working on securing a sponsorship that will help him pay for the trip. If he can’t get the money pulled together, he’ll take off again in July, right here in Central Oregon. He’s also been invited to do a flight from a casino in Las Vegas. Originally, Couch said he wouldn’t fly by chair again unless his wife, Susan, gave him the go-ahead.

“She said alright, you can do it as long as you take me to Australia,” he said. “So we’re going to do it this summer.”

Susan had plenty of reason to be nervous when Couch started preparing for his famous flight. The journey started at 5 a.m. July 8, and continued for nearly nine hours. Couch outfitted a large, green lawn chair with a video camera and a GPS tracking device. He hooked dozens of large helium balloons to the chair and weighed it down with bags of water that were used as ballast. When Couch needed to get higher in the air, he poured out water.

Couch traveled 193 miles and got as high as 13,000 feet before setting down in a farm field near North Powder, a few miles from La Grande.

Many of his family members and friends followed his progress in an RV and a truck, and Couch stayed in touch with them by cell phone and two-way radio, sending them GPS coordinates so they’d know where he was. Much of the time, Couch was visible on the horizon, a multicolor speck on the landscape.

By the end of his trip, Couch had run low on water in the ballast. He struggled to land, losing his chair and all of the supplies he had on it, including a video camera and his cell phone. These are things he’d like to improve on when he flies again.

Wherever he makes his next flight from, he’s got some plans.

“Every time I go, I learn how to make it more successful,” Couch said. “I’ve got to leave earlier, at daybreak, when it’s just getting light. And I have to prepare to sit longer.”

He will also carry more water for the ballast, which was the reason he failed to make it to his goal of Idaho last time.

E-mails keep coming

Since he made news in July, Couch has gotten plenty of e-mail from people interested in learning about cluster-balloon flights. He gives them a bit of advice but not too much, because he doesn’t want to be held responsible if the flights go bad.

This summer, Couch expects to see some copycats here in Central Oregon, since he’s received some correspondence from people interested in the flights. Two in particular seem ready to go, but Couch is nervous for them. He had years of training for the flight, including knowing how to sky-dive and parachute.

“I expect them to do it, but neither of them has showed that they were prepared,” he said. “They don’t want to learn to sky-dive, which is pretty important.”

It’s dangerous to fly, but Couch thinks of it as a calculated risk.

Shortly after returning from his media tour, Couch did a presentation for the local chapter of the Oregon Pilots Association. They were interested in his story, but most said they would never attempt what he’d done.

“They think theirs is safer,” Couch said. “I really think mine is safer.”

The price of fame

While Couch enjoyed the traveling he got to do for his media tour, the fame has gotten a little embarrassing.

“The worst part is when you go to buy something and they look at your credit card and say, ‘Hey, you’re the balloon guy!’” he said. “It’s not so much the recognizing, that’s kind of fun to share the story ... it’s that going into the hardware store, or the groups I’m in, every time I see them they make balloon jokes.”

But he did learn something from all the attention. Couch appeared on CNN, “Inside Edition,” “Good Morning America,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and a Fox Family network show, among others. The people, he said, were nice and friendly.

“They all were just like me and you, they treated me nicely,” he said. “I could tell they put their pants on the same as we do.”

His story captured imaginations all over the world, and it will continue to, since a story about Couch’s adventure was recently featured in the Weekly Reader, a magazine that helps kids learn to read.

Kids write letters

“Schoolteachers sometimes write me and ask me to respond, and kids will write letters to me and I respond,” he said. “That’s the fun part.”

He’s going to be featured on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” television show, and in a book about normal people doing abnormal things. Now that Couch has a chance to look back on the frenzy, he’s happy with the way it went.

“I liked it in the end,” he said. “But at first I was like, ‘Holy smokes.’”

Susan thinks he’s handled the fame well.

“I think it’s a two-way street. I think there’s been times he’s thought, ‘Not again, not more attention.’ But I think he loves telling the story,” she said. “We find him telling the story more often than not.”

But Susan’s going to do her best to keep Couch from getting caught up in all the attention again.

“For Christmas I got him an anchor, so he can stay grounded.”

Sheila G. Miller can be reached at 617-7831 or at

No comments: