A Quest to Achieve the Highest Darwin Award

10:09 PM

By Dan Pimentel, Airplanista Editor

What is it with some people and balloons?

I am not talking about licensed hot air balloon pilots who are serious about adhering to FAA regulations, or those who build and pilot airships, which I know are technically not “balloons” but somewhat related.

No, I’m talking about people who strap themselves to a lawn chair held aloft by a cluster of balloons and blast off freestyle to somewhere, or wannabe reality TV buffoons who build a fake spaceship in their backyard, launch it skyward and then call every media market in the country screaming frantically that their kid is trapped inside.

In 2008, Oregon resident Kent Couch successfully “flew” a lawn chair from Bend, Oregon to Idaho, emulating infamous flying chair pioneer “Lawnchair” Larry Walters who “flew” a lawn chair at 16,000’ MSL through busy Los Angeles airspace in 1982.

Couch is part of the under-reported sport of Cluster Ballooning, a fringe element of aviators who many seem to think go rogue across the sky, commanding a leisurely craft void of contact with anyone. But a few Cluster Balloonists like Jonathan Trappe are as serious about aviation as anyone reading this post:
Trappe is an FAA certified pilot, with a specific rating for Lighter-Than-Air: Free Balloons. In addition, Trappe has completed specific gas balloon training and has flown under multiple lighter-than-air gasses. All flights are conducted in strict compliance with all Federal Aviation Regulations, and the FAA is always contacted before a cluster balloon launch. Working extensively with the FAA, Trappe has been issued an airworthiness certificate for one of his cluster systems, N878UP. Safety equipment in flight includes two-way aircraft radios, altitude encoding transponder, aviator’s breathing oxygen, pilot parachute, gps, and emergency locator beacon.
But while Trappe’s flights have been primarily sane, Couch’s next lawn chair aviation adventure can only be called reckless. EAA has the details...and really, what could possibly go wrong here?
Next week, Kent “The Balloon Man” Couch will attempt to set a Guinness World Record for cluster ballooning by flying in tandem (two lawn chairs) over Iraq with self-described Iraqi extreme sports enthusiast/daredevil Fareed Lafta. Plans are to use 300 balloons for the November 15 launch from Baghdad’s Green Zone, and the pair plans to remain aloft for 24 hours. During that time they’ll aim for an altitude of 25,000 feet MSL while traveling more than 600 miles.
Yes, you read that right...not Idaho...IRAQ. 

Of all the places on this planet to prove to the world you are a skilled lawn chair driver, I would think Baghdad, Iraq would be possibly the worst choice to launch from. It’s as if Couch put a request into the people who pass out the Darwin Awards, asking for a sure-fire way to achieve their “Worst. Idea. Ever!” Award. But even Couch has been publicly wondering if this stunt might be over the top as he questioned the challenges he faced in this Los Angeles Times story:
The biggest challenge now, Couch told Oregon television station KTVZ, is to make sure that winds don't push him off course. "The fear is if we drift to Iran, which is only about 85 miles from Baghdad," he said. "We would just have to come back down, because I'm not going to gamble being in Iran for very long."
Yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that accidentally floating folding yard furniture into Iranian airspace is a really, really, REALLY bad idea. Just ask Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal.

One challenging element of trying to “fly” any sort of furniture held in thin air by party balloons inside Iraq is that when it’s time to descend, one needs to use some sort of gun to shoot out the balloons to lose lift and begin the descent. Since Couch has to fly commercially into Baghdad, bringing along the BB gun traditionally used by cluster balloonists for the task would be problematic, to say the least. In numerous interviews though, it seems Couch and Lafta have this part covered in their quest for the Darwin Award’s highest honor:
Lafta said Couch would not try to ship a BB gun to shoot out balloons for landings, because he figured it would not get past baggage inspectors. “If you need guns, we've got lots of them here in Iraq,” Lafta said.
Which, by the way IS THE PROBLEM!

But in the interest of trying to stay positive, I will assume nobody packing automatic weaponry on the ground in Iraq will have a problem with an American floating over their ghetto underneath a canopy of colorful, happy spheres made in the good old U.S of A. How could they possibly have issues with so much in-your-face glee and untethered freedom? No, I’m sure they will rejoice, and we all have seen what it looks like when people in that part of the world rejoice. They will all pile into the back of a Toyota pick-up and begin firing those automatic weapons in celebration, wasting hundreds of rounds of perfectly good ammunition as they fire with aimless abandon into the sky.

Hopefully that airspace will not be the same exact piece of sky that Couch and his chair will be floating through at that precise moment in time.

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