Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lawn chair balloonist says flying days are done

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon man who made headlines with his numerous flights in a lawn chair suspended from party balloons said Tuesday that between the high price of helium and a fine from the Federal Aviation Administration, his flying days might be done — at least in the U.S.

Bend gas station owner and craft beer seller Kent Couch said helium costs five times what it did when he made his first flight in 2006.

And the FAA fined him $4,500 in February for his July 14, 2012, tandem flight with Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta. The fine was reported Monday by The Bend Bulletin.

"We need them," Couch said of the agency. "But they certainly dampened my spirit of flying."

The FAA says Couch and Lafta flew without pilot's licenses, failed to register the lawn chairs as an aircraft, failed to have the contraption certified as airworthy, and were careless and reckless when the balloon took off without them after they landed in a farm field.

Couch says the FAA agreed to reduce the fine from $5,500 to $4,500 after he talked to its lawyer. He said he paid the fine by certified check in February or March with money he received from a sponsor.

But FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an email that the agency has no record of the payment. The FAA levied a similar fine against Lafta, but he is out of the country and has not responded, Cory said.

"I think they are just making me a scapegoat or an example, to keep other people from doing it," said Couch.

Apparently it didn't work.

A La Center, Wash., man launched his own lawn chair balloon last month to celebrate his 60th birthday. He managed to fly 24 miles before getting stuck in a tree, far short of his goal of more than 250 miles.

Couch said the FAA interviewed him after some of his previous flights, but this is the first time it levied a fine.

In his 2006 flight, Couch traveled 99 miles before the balloons started popping and he had to bail out. In 2007, he flew 193 miles before running low on helium and landing in the sagebrush of Eastern Oregon.

In 2008, he floated at 35 mph across the high desert and landed in a pasture in the farming community of Cambridge, Idaho, after pulling out his trusty BB rifle and shooting enough balloons to come to earth. The lawn chair from that flight is in a museum.

He was at it again in 2010 when he raced another law chair balloonist on a flight that went about 70 miles.

Couch theorized the fine came because he had a co-pilot on the 2012 flight, but Cory said that was not the case.

Still up in the air is whether Couch and Lafta go through with a flight in Iraq. Couch and his wife, Susan, went to Dubai in 2011 in hopes of making the flight, but it never got off the ground. Couch says Lafta has put it on hold.

"I'll never regret doing those flights, based just on the great sense of being able to fly through the air like a cloud," Couch said.


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