Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Balloon man faces Federal Aviation Administration fine: Feds say Bend, Oregon, man who flew lawn chair was unauthorized, reckless

A Bend man famous for taking his lawn chair to the skies faces a fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for his flight last summer.

The FAA is fining 53-year-old Kent Couch $4,500 for his July 14, 2012, flight from Bend to a field near Post, Elizabeth Cory, a spokeswoman with the agency, confirmed Monday. Fareed Lafta, a 35-year-old Iraqi adventurer, joined Couch for the shorter-than-expected ride and also faces a similar FAA fine, but he is out of the country and the agency has not heard back from him.

The agency contends the men acted as pilots without valid certificates or authorization, operated an unregistered aircraft without an airworthiness certificate and “operated an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."

Cory said the FAA would like Couch to pay the fine “as soon as possible."

Couch, reached by phone Monday, said he is contesting the FAA fine, although the agency doesn't have any documents indicating a formal appeal. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Bulletin prompted the FAA to release 83 pages of documents regarding its investigation into last year's lawn-chair balloon launch in Bend.

Last July, Couch and Lafta launched from the Stop & Go Station, which Couch owns, at the corner of U.S. Highway 20 and 27th Street. The two sat in lawn chairs clamped to an aluminum frame and were carried aloft by 400 large helium-filled party balloons. They wanted to fly 360 miles to Montana in a day-and-a-half, and carried extra clothes and sleeping bags to keep them warm throughout the night. But the threat of thunderstorms cut the flight short.

Hundreds of people were there for the launch, including volunteers who filled the balloons with helium and tied them to the lawn chairs. The balloons were red, white, blue and black — combining the colors of the American and Iraqi flags. After taking off from Bend around 10:20 a.m. that day, Couch and Lafta floated north for about 40 miles before winds shifted and sent them south, then east. As thunderclouds gathered, they popped some of the balloons to force a landing about 30 miles east from where they had started.

During the flight, the balloons reached an altitude of 14,060 feet, as measured by an altimeter carried aboard, according to FAA documents.

After landing in the field near Post, a remote unincorporated Crook County community, a system designed to release 100 of the balloons and keep the lawn chairs on the ground malfunctioned. Unmanned, the lawn chairs took off again. They were in the air for about an hour and traveled about five miles before coming back down. Inspectors with the FAA noted that one of the lawn chairs suffered a bent leg, although it was unclear if it occurred during the first or second landing.

Couch said FAA officials interviewed him after the flight, as they have during his past adventures in the air.

“They've interviewed me every year," he said. “(They) want to make sure I'm legal."

The flight last year was the fifth since 2006 for Couch as a lawn-chair balloonist, he said. The first time he made it to near Brothers, the second to near Baker City, the third to near Cambridge, Idaho, and the fourth to near Paulina. The flights have earned Couch national and international media coverage, and he has made appearances on “Good Morning America" and “The Tonight Show."

Last year Couch talked about the possibility of doing a flight in Iraq, but for now his lawn-chair ballooning plans are on hold because of the costs involved. He said he does want to fly again.

“We are waiting for the price of helium to come down a bit," he said.


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