Lawn-chair balloonist Kent Couch boarded a plane Thursday in Redmond, Ore., for the start of a journey that he hopes will end in Iraq with a safe launch and landing beneath a huge cluster of party balloons.

Couch said Iraqi daredevil Fareed Lafta invited him to Baghdad for a Nov. 15 flight at a youth conference in the Green Zone. Couch said he was “pretty sure I had hung up my hat” on ballooning before Lafta called. But the timing for another airborne adventure was right.

“Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, and the U.S. is pulling out, it is time Iraq really steps up and begins to dream about putting the country back together,” Couch said. The flight “will encourage them to dream, knowing the sky is the limit.”

Couch plans to rig 300 balloons to lift the two men sitting in a pair of lawn chairs for an overnight flight of 400 miles at 25,000 feet, which will require oxygen masks. He has shipped a pair of lawn chairs, the framework to support them, and hundreds of party balloons to Dubai, where Lafta lives. Lafta has gotten the visas and permissions they will need for their flight.

The cherry Kool-Aid that Couch favors for flavoring the ballast tanks is in his luggage.

Couch said his biggest fear is floating into neighboring Iran, but he hopes to have favorable winds.

“I’m pretty confident we can make 25,000 feet,” he said.

Chaka Khan struggles to pick right song for tribute to ‘Aretha’

NEW YORK – Singing an Aretha Franklin song is a tough task for anyone – even Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee Chaka Khan.

Khan says she’s struggling to find the right song to pay tribute to Franklin at a concert at the Rock Hall in Cleveland. Saturday’s concert, featuring Khan, Lauryn Hill, Ronald Isley and others, will cap a week of festivities honoring Franklin as part of the museum’s American Music Masters series.

Khan said she’d love to sing a jazz tune, since Franklin’s early material was rooted in jazz. But since the event is at the Rock Hall, “I don’t know whether it would be appropriate.”

Khan said she’s likely to pick one of Franklin’s lesser-known songs. “I try to pick songs that people know and love, but weren’t hits…. It shows the artist’s versatility,” she said.

Suspect denies stalking actress

LOS ANGELES – A man with a history of mental illness has pleaded not guilty to stalking actress and singer Selena Gomez.

Thomas Brodnicki, 46, entered his plea Thursday in Superior Court to one count of stalking.

Brodnicki is accused of stalking the “Wizards of Waverly Place” star from July to October. Police were notified by mental health workers that he also threatened to harm or kill Gomez.

Film 23 for 007

LOS ANGELES – James Bond will be back in U.S. theaters in November 2012 with “Skyfall,” the 23rd film in the venerable spy franchise and the third installment starring Daniel Craig as 007.

Shooting began Thursday for the movie that will mark the film franchise’s 50th anniversary, although the fans who made “Dr. No” a hit back in 1962 might barely recognize the hero in his current taciturn mode. Still, at a news conference in London, director Sam Mendes assured reporters and fans that he will keep the adrenaline pumping.

– From news service reports