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Storms ground lawn-chair balloon flight

BEND, Ore. -- An Oregon gas station owner and an Iraqi adventurer trying to fly in a lawn-chair balloon rig from Central Oregon to Montana were forced to abort their flight Saturday due to thunderstorms.

About six hours into their flight, Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta started to descend from an altitude of 10,000 feet because of the weather, flight organizer Mark Knowles said.

The website tracker showed them about 5 miles south of the town of Prineville, about 30 miles northeast of their starting point.

About 90 volunteers and several hundred onlookers counted down and then cheered as the pair lifted off from Couch's Shell gas station.

"The interesting thing is, anybody can do this," Couch, the veteran of several lawn-chair balloon flights, said before the flight.

Lafta, a mountain climber and sky diver, said he had shared Couch's childhood dream of floating like a cloud. He sent Couch an email two winters ago after reading accounts of Couch's earlier flights.

"I want to inspire Iraqis and say we need to defeat terrorists," Lafta said. "We don't need just an Army. We need ideology and to just have fun."

Volunteers filled 350 5-foot diameter red, white, blue and black balloons with helium and tied them to Couch's homemade tandem lawn-chair rig.

Lance Schliep, an appliance repairman, helped Couch with the latest design, made entirely from items bought at local hardware stores and junk from Couch's garage.

"It's about as redneck as you can get," Couch said.

The two men hoped to fly through the night across the mountains of Idaho and touch down this morning somewhere in southwestern Montana.

The flight was a warm-up for plans to fly a tandem lawn-chair balloon rig in Baghdad sometime in the future.

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