A record attempt for the longest cluster balloon flight by Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta was cut short when the team flew into a thunderstorm in Oregon on Saturday, July 14, 2012.
Volunteers began arriving at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) to begin inflating the 375 large helium filled party balloons that attach to the chair rig. The balloons of red, white, blue and black were chosen to represent the U.S. and Iraqi flags.
Couch and Lafta lifted off from the parking lot of the Stop and Go Mini Mart gas station in Bend, Ore., at 10:20 a.m. PDT. On board with the men on the balloon rig were parachutes, oxygen and oxygen masks, a GPS unit, gallons of Kool-Aid, cameras, video cameras and a BB gun. The BB gun is used to pop the balloons when the team is ready to descend. A large U.S. flag flew beneath the men.
They planned to fly about 508 miles over the Oregon mountains and then touch down in Montana Sunday morning.
Thunderstorms prevented the men from completing their flight. Rain, hail and even a bit of snow forced the team to land near Prineville, Ore., at 5:30 p.m. PDT.
"We encountered a lot of cumulus clouds that were building and contained lightning," Couch said during a phone interview. "We had to fly below the clouds between 7,000 and 10,000 feet and the winds were taking us in the wrong direction." After assessing the weather, the team made the decision to descend early.
During the flight, Couch and Lafta reached an altitude of 14,060 feet before the storm made them descend.
"Winds in the upper atmosphere were from the south-southwest and light between 10-15 mph," said AccuWeather Expert Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson. "There was a disturbance in the area capable of producing thunderstorms and rapidly changing winds."
Winds caused the rig to change direction frequently, so an exact distance traveled has not been determined. The pair set down about 39 miles away from the launch site near Prineville, Ore.
As the men exited the rig, the balloons lifted it into the air. The rig was tracked and recovered on Sunday, according to Couch.
Another flight is planned in Iraq sometime in the fall of 2012. The team has set a tentative launch date in early October.
Couch and Lafta planned the flight to call attention to the orphaned children in Iraq and to set a new flight record.
The international community has shown interest in the flight. Prince Albert of Monaco will send aid for the event. The aid will be used to provide gifts for children who will be present at the launch site.
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