2008 Flight Story
In the cool, dark morning before dawn, Kent Couch and his flight crew descended upon Kent’s Stop and Go gas station to attempt his third cluster balloon flight (in as many years) to Idaho. This flight was far different than the others Kent had experienced. In previous flights, Kent had fewer helpersand the media wasa lone reporter. This year, Kent had a 50+ person flight crew, some sponsorship dollars and media coverage that was beyond his imagination.
Preparation for Launch
The Thursday evening before launch, Kent hosted a Bar-B-Q to mingle, orient the crew and divide responsibilities. At 4:00am on Saturday, July 5, 2008, the crew and Kent arrived at the launch site along with several news networks. The volunteers set up six helium filling stations, run by four people each. The chair, instead of being rigged with water sacks had three water barrels filled with cherry Kool-Aid (to enable Kent to see how full the ballasts were). After the balloons were full, they were attached to buckets of water where they were grouped in sevens before being attachedto the chair. The process was like a well-oiled machine, each person in their role and working together to achieve Kent’s goal.
Around 5:30am, people started gathering to witness the launch. The crowd grew to about 500. While they waited, folks were able to grab their morning cup of joe at Eastside Java, consume a breakfast sandwich from the Stop & Go and buy their very own souvenir T-shirt. It truly was a Bend community event.
At 6:44am, after a group prayer, Kent made his first launch attempt. The first attempt proved that he had a little too much Kool-Aid ballast so Kent released some of the liquid while the crew pulled him back to the ground. The second attempt was close but, still a little too heavy. The third time was the charm. Kent cleared the gas station parking lot lights and building to soar into the bright blue sky dotted with whimsical clouds.
Once in the air, Kent said, “it was smooth sailing.” Kent describes the ride as pleasant and serene. He had three major highlights of this flight. One was going partially through and above the clouds. In his past flights, Kent had never encountered clouds. He said it was very interesting, not as wet as he expected and it was dark gray when he was inside them. The second was reaching a top speed of 49 miles per hour. The speed of the wind allowed Kent to arrive in Idaho in nine hours and twelve mnutes (beating his estimated 10-12 hrs). The third highlight was seeing the Snake River 20 miles off, getting closer and flying over it, knowing he had reached his goal.
Although he loves cluster ballooning, Kent said that he was ready to land when he did. Unfortunately, his parachute was tremendously uncomfortable, leading Kent at one point to take it off for a few short minutes to get some reprieve from the pain. Kent said that he didn’t feel comfortable without it so he quickly strapped it back on. The voice of his wife Susan was no doubt ringing in his ears.
During the flight, Kent had a ground crew of six vehicles following him closely. Two of the vehicles were media and four were family, friends and volunteers. In one vehicle, the tech team was taking video and editing it, communicating with the website team, and keeping in touch with Kent. Another vehicle had a certified EMT paramedic and parachute expert. The last two vehicles were Kent’s close friend and expert (who helped engineer the ballast system and balloon configuration) and his family.
The ground crew covered over 500 miles in pursuit of Kent, while he covered a straight shot of 235 miles. The mood in the vehicles was serious, no radio was played, and every so often the caravan would pull over and reassess their position on maps and make major decisions concerning their route. In John Day, the team stopped to fill their tanks at a Shell station. The gas attendant wanted to know what they where doing so the team attempted to explain their strange mission. The entire store had heard of Kent Couch and raced out of the station to catch a glimpse of Kent as he floated by.
By the time the team reached Baker City, they knew that Kent was getting ready to land as soon as he crossed the Snake River. Quite a ways behind, they were forced to make up time by “flying” down I-84. They weren’t sure how they would explain to law enforcement their need for speed; fortunately they arrived in Cambridge, Idaho without being pulled over.
By the time the team reached Kent, he had made a soft, 6 mphlanding in a field and several townspeople had already surrounded him. Kent was amazed at how friendly and excited everyone was to see him. He recalls that his landing last year, outside of North Powder, Oregon was much different. The land owners in Idahosaid that he could land on their property any time.
Kent was especially touched by a lady who hugged him and told him she had prayed for him all day. About the third gentleman on the scene walked up, introduced himself, reached into his bib-overalls and handed Kent a can of beer. “The beer was ice-cold,” Kent said “so he must have grabbed it right before he left his house.” Kent felt that the gesture was really hospitable; he would like to go back and meet him someday.
The balloons that were attached to the chair were hauled off on cars and by people on foot. A member of the ground crew remarked that the folks of Cambridge appeared to be having a parade in honor of Kent and his accomplishment. Spectators asked for souvenirs from the chair and autographs. There were about 30 people in all; even the police arrived to ensure that Kent was okay.
The Couch Family was the happiest of all. Kent reached his goal, set a new world distancerecord for cluster ballooning and lived to tell about it. Kent said that unless he is able to get sponsorship for a cluster balloon flight in Australia, the English Channel, the Grand Canyon or an exotic location, he is hanging up his balloons. He was also quick to mention that he had not received clearing for another flight from his lovely wife, which as a good husband, would be necessary before making any future plans.
So it appears the cluster ballooning future of Kent Couch is not known. He certainly has a passion for it and even announced that if he had the volunteers, the sponsorship dollars and the green light from Susan, “he would do it every weekend!”
Kent would especially like to thank everyone who volunteered their time and supported him in his dream. He says he can’t thank everyone enough and he couldn’t have done it without them. To all of his fans, Kent would like to say, “Dream big, and chase your dreams.”