Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Building a Better Idiot

At this point, we can't decide if Oregon gas station owner Kent Couch is a serious contender for a future Darwin Award, or simply proof that our society can always build a better idiot.

Last weekend, the 47-year-old Couch flew 193 miles. Not in an airplane, hot air balloon, or an ultralight. No, Mr. Couch slipped the surly bonds of earth in his lawn chair.

That's right, lawn chair. According to the AP, Couch attached 105 helium-filled balloons to his chair and set off from his home in Bend, heading for Idaho. He fell short of that destination, finally returning to earth after floating over the Oregon countryside for nine hours, followed by his wife, friends and the family dog in a three-car caravan.

And this wasn't his first trip. Last September, he went aloft with an 88-balloon configuration, carrying along a BB gun to pop them at the appropriate time, and provide descent. However, Couch apparently popped too many balloons, and he was forced to parachute from the rig when it descended too rapidly.

Undeterred, Couch took the skies again Saturday, this time using a more advanced flying chair, equipped with valves to release helium from the balloons and a water ballast system. He also carried instruments to measure altitude and speed, a personal GPS system and another parachute. Averaging about 25 miles an hour, Couch elected to end the journey as he approached rugged terrain near LeGrand, Oregon. He suffered rope burns while trying to extricate himself from the chair, which was carried away by high winds.

Mr. Couch says he's just living a life-long dream:

“When you’re a little kid and you’re holding a helium balloon, it has to cross your mind,” Couch told the Bend Bulletin.

“When you’re laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them,” he said. “This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It’s just like that.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In 1982, a southern California man, Larry Walters, gained his 15 minutes of fame during another lawn chair flight. Walters hoped to surprise his girlfriend by rising to treetop level, but he used too many balloons and the chair quickly zoomed to 19,000 feet, floating through the traffic pattern at Los Angele's International Airport. That prompted radio calls to air traffic controllers from airline pilots, who reported that they had been passed by a guy in a lawn chair.

After his moment of notoriety, Walters fell into a depression and killed himself in 1993. Because he lived to tell about his adventure, Mr. Walters only earned an "honorable mention" from the Darwin Awards.

As for Couch, he's still in the running, because a third flight may be in the offing--if his wife gives her okay. Mrs. Couch says she's "thinking about" saying no, suggesting she's a bit more tolerant than most wives--or that she has a large life insurance policy on her husband.

1 comment:

cold pizza said...

Oh, come on! It's had to have crossed your mind. I think it'd be a wonderful addition to that old "To Fly" IMAX film at the A&S Museum. -cp