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Oregon lawn-chair balloonist plans Baghdad flight

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    Kent Couch flies away from his gas station in Bend, Ore., riding a lawn chair rigged with more than 150 giant party balloons for a flight that ended in an Idaho farm field.

Lawn-chair balloonist Kent Couch boarded a plane Thursday for the start of a journey that he hopes will end in Iraq with a safe launch and landing beneath a huge cluster of party balloons.

Couch made headlines worldwide in 2008 when he flew a specially rigged lawn chair supported by more than 150 helium-filled party balloons from the parking lot of the gas station he owns in Bend, Ore., to an Idaho field. The trip spanned 235 miles.

Couch says Iraqi daredevil Fareed Lafta invited him to Baghdad for a Nov. 15 flight at a youth conference in the Green Zone.

Couch said he was "pretty sure I had hung up my hat on this" before Lafta called. But the timing for another airborne adventure was right.

"Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, and the U.S. is pulling out, it is time Iraq really steps up and begins to dream about putting the country back together," Couch told The Associated Press from the airport in Redmond, Ore. "I think between having a U.S. citizen and an Iraqi citizen launch together, where we are saying we are fulfilling our dream, it will encourage them to dream, knowing the sky is the limit if they just reach out and try."

Couch plans to rig 300 balloons to lift the two men sitting in a pair of lawn chairs for an overnight flight of 400 miles at 25,000 feet, which will require oxygen masks. The flight was first reported by KTVZ in Bend.

He has shipped a pair of lawn chairs, the framework to support them, and hundreds of party balloons to Dubai, where Lafta lives. Lafta has gotten the visas and permissions they will need for their flight.

The cherry Kool-Aid that Couch favors for flavoring the ballast tanks is in his luggage.

"I said, ‘Do you have any lawn chairs?’" Couch said of his contacts with Lafta working out logistics. "He says, ‘What?’ I emailed a picture of one, and he said, ‘I’ve never seen one of those. Better send a couple.’ So I sent over a couple."

Couch’s original lawn chair from the July 5, 2008, flight is in a museum. He tried to make an even longer flight to Montana last year, but the winds were too strong. He failed to reach Idaho in a 2007 attempt.

This time his wife, Susan, is more supportive, and is flying to Dubai with him. So is a film crew from White Knuckle Productions in Bend.

Couch said he did not try to ship a BB gun to shoot out balloons for landings, because he figured it would not get past baggage inspectors.

"(Lafta) said, ‘If you need guns, we’ve got lots of them here,’" Couch said. "I said, ‘OK, we’ll figure something out.’"

Couch said his biggest fear is floating into neighboring Iran, but he hopes to have favorable winds.

"I’m pretty confident we can make 25,000 feet," he said.

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