April 19, 1949|
Los Angeles, California
|Died||October 6, 1993
Angeles National Forest
|Other names||Lawnchair Larry|
|Known for||Flying a lawn chair with weather balloons|
Lawrence Richard Walters, nicknamed "Lawnchair Larry" or the "Lawn Chair Pilot", (April 19, 1949 – October 6, 1993) was an American truck driver who took flight on July 2, 1982, in a homemade airship. Dubbed Inspiration I, the "flying machine" consisted of an ordinary patio chair with 45 helium-filled weather balloons attached to it. Walters rose to an altitude of over 15,000 feet (4,600 m) and floated from his point of origin in San Pedro, California, into controlled airspace near Los Angeles International Airport. His flight was widely reported.
Origin of his plan
Walters had always dreamt of flying, but was unable to become a pilot in the United States Air Force because of his poor eyesight. He first thought of using weather balloons to fly at age 13 and 14, after seeing them hanging from the ceiling of a military surplus store. Twenty years later he decided to try it. His intention was to attach a few helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair, cut the anchor, and then float above his backyard at a height of about 30 feet (9.1 m) for several hours. He planned to use a pellet gun to burst balloons to float gently to the ground.
Preparation and launch
In mid-1982, Walters and his girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, purchased 45 eight-foot weather balloons and obtained helium tanks from California Toy Time Balloons. They used a forged requisition from his employer, FilmFair Studios, saying the balloons were for a television commercial. Walters attached the balloons to his lawn chair, filled them with helium, put on a parachute, and strapped himself into the chair in the backyard of a home at 1633 W. 7th St. in San Pedro. He took his pellet gun, a CB radio, sandwiches, cold beer, and a camera. When his friends cut the cord that tied his lawn chair to his Jeep, Walters's lawn chair rose rapidly to a height of about 15,000 feet (4,600 m). At first, he did not dare shoot any balloons, fearing that he might unbalance the load and cause himself to spill out. He slowly drifted over Long Beach and crossed the primary approach corridor of Long Beach Airport.
- REACT: What information do you wish me to tell [the airport] at this time as to your location and your difficulty?
- Larry: Ah, the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorized balloon launch, and, uh, I know I'm in a federal airspace, and, uh, I'm sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I'm okay.
After 45 minutes in the sky, he shot several balloons, and then accidentally dropped his pellet gun overboard. He descended slowly, until the balloons' dangling cables got caught in a power line, causing a 20-minute blackout in a Long Beach neighborhood. Walters was able to climb to the ground.
Arrest and notoriety
He was immediately arrested by waiting members of the Long Beach Police Department. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy was reported to have said, "We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot's license, we'd suspend that. But he doesn't." Walters initially was fined $4,000 for violations under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations, including operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area "without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower." Walters appealed, and the fine was reduced to $1,500. A charge of operating a "civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate" was dropped, as it was not applicable to his class of aircraft.
It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn't done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.
After his flight, Walters was briefly in demand as a motivational speaker, and quit his job as a truck driver. He was featured in a Timex print ad in the early 1990s, but never made much money from his fame.
The lawn chair used in the flight was reportedly given to an admiring boy named Jerry, though Walters regretted doing so when the Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate it to its museum. Twenty years later, Jerry sent an email to Mark Barry, a pilot who had documented Walters's story and dedicated a website to it, and identified himself. The chair was still sitting in his garage, attached to some of the original tethers and water jugs used as ballast. The chair is now on loan to the San Diego Air & Space Museum, on exhibition through 2014.
Later life and death
Later in his life, Walters hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and did volunteer work for the United States Forest Service. He later broke up with his girlfriend of 15 years and could only find work sporadically as a security guard.
On October 6, 1993, at the age of 44, Walters committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart in Angeles National Forest. He left no suicide note. His remains are interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills, in their Columbarium of Valor. Walters had no children, and is survived by his mother and two sisters.
In popular culture
- The Lucksmiths' "Up", from their 1997 album A Good Kind of Nervous, is about Walters's flight.
- The one-act musical play Flight of the Lawnchair Man by Peter Ullian (music by Robert Lindsey Nassif) is about a fictional balloon pilot inspired by Walters's flight and those of other balloon pilots. It was performed as the final segment of the musical 3hree, directed by Hal Prince and performed in November 2000.
- The flight and Walters's inability to settle back into normal existence inspired Up (The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair), Bridget Carpenter's 2002 play that traced the discordant aftermath of fictional Walter Griffin's lawn chair adventure.
- The flight was parodied in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "The Sponge Who Could Fly" (original air date: April 22, 2003).
- An Easter egg in SimCity 4, released on January 14, 2003, shows a man floating across the city in a lawn chair attached to balloons.
- Walters's flight was replicated (though tethered) on one of the 2003 pilot episodes of the TV show MythBusters, in which Adam Savage was lifted to a height of 75 feet (23 m) and gradually reduced his altitude by shooting balloons with a pellet gun. It was "Confiremd," although it had already been confirmed previously by the FAA.
- Walters's story inspired the 2003 Australian romantic comedy Danny Deckchair.
- In the 2003 season 5, episode 1 ("Vegas") of the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm's brother Reese flies in a lawn chair with weather balloons.
- In the Season 7 2003 King of the Hill episode "The Miseducation of Bobby Hill," Dale devises a plan to replicate Walters' flight with Bill as pilot; Bill becomes tangled in the ropes and flies away with disastrous results. Boomhauer even references Walters, leading Hank to point out that his flying experiment proved to be dangerous rather than an effective means of travel.
- The San Diego band Pinback describes the flight in the song "Walters" from their 2007 album Autumn of the Seraphs.
- The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, an ensemble piece created and directed by Eric Nightengale, was produced at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in New York City in the summer and fall of 2008. In 2009 the production was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
- The 2009 computer-animated film produced by Pixar and released by Walt Disney Pictures is (like the aforementioned song and play) also titled Up. The film tells the story of a man who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America by tying thousands of helium-filled baloons to his house.
Walters's stunt was dangerous, but there have been imitators. The extreme sport of cluster ballooning was also spawned by his stunt.
- Kent Couch, a 47-year-old gas station owner from Bend, Oregon, reportedly flew 240 miles (390 km) in his lawn chair on July 7, 2007, landing in a field about 3 1⁄2 miles (6 km) NNW of North Powder, Oregon, about 30 miles (50 km) from the Idaho border. Traveling an average of 22 mph, Couch used plastic bags filled with 75 litres (20 US gal) of water as ballast against the 105 large helium balloons tied to his lawn chair. Like Walters, Couch had a BB gun on hand to shoot the balloons in order to initiate descent. After the flight, he developed a way to release helium from the balloons, allowing for a more controlled descent. During a second flight on July 5, 2008, Couch realized his goal of interstate travel when he landed safely in western Idaho. The trip totaled 240 miles (390 km) and took 9 hours and 12 minutes.
- On January 13, 2008, the Brazilian Roman Catholic priest and human-rights defender Adelir Antonio de Carli lifted off from Ampere, Brazil, suspended under 600 helium-filled party balloons, and reached an altitude of 5,300 metres (17,400 ft) before landing safely in Argentina. On April 20, 2008, lifting off from Paranagua, Brazil, in an attempt to fly 725 km (450 mi) inland to Dourados, Brazil, he flew using a chair suspended under 1,000 party balloons, reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,100 m). Not having checked the weather forecast, he got caught in a storm. He had a GPS but did not know how to operate it. He was last heard on the radio eight hours after liftoff approaching the water after flying off the coast, unable to give his position, and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean; his body was found by the Brazilian Navy near an offshore oil platform on July 4, 2008. The act won him a 2008 Darwin Award.
- On May 28, 2010, the American adventurer Jonathan Trappe crossed the English Channel by cluster balloon, departing near Challock, England, and crossing over the White Cliffs of Dover at St. Margarets Bay. He made landfall again over Dunkirk, France, and then tracked inland, landing in a farmer's cabbage patch in France. Trappe continues to experiment in cluster ballooning flights. In 2011 he replicated the Up house for a National Geographic television program. In September 2013, he tried to cross the Atlantic, but after taking off in Maine he landed in Canada after being unable to control his balloon.
- Balloon boy hoax
- Bartolomeu de Gusmão, a priest and naturalist born in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, who was recalled for his first balloon flight in Lisbon in 1720 (the balloon burned).
- Matias Perez, a Portuguese entrepreneur who also attempted balloon flight from Havana (Cuba) on June 28, 1856, and got lost while on it.
- "1982 Honorable Mention: Lawn Chair Larry". Darwinawards.com. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- "Man flies 193 miles in lawn chair". CNN.com (Bend, OR: CNN). Associated Press. 2007-07-10. Archived from the original on 10-07-2007. Check date values in:
- Rose, Ron (2013-05-29). "Keep dreaming". Arlington Today. Retrieved 2013-10-19.
- "– Scan of Walters' Timex ad". Check-six.com. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- Barry, Mark. "Lawnchair man's chair found". Official site. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
- "Crash Landing: A Daredevil's Despair Ends in his Suicide". People. 1993-12-13.
- "Peter Ullian". Playsbyullian.com. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- "3hree [Cast Recording]". Amazon.com. Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
- "FAA". Mythbustersresults.com. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- "Man in the Flying Lawn Chair Soars Once More at 78th Street Theatre Lab, Oct. 12". Playbill.com. Retrieved 2010-09-19.
- "Bend lawn-chair balloonist soars high on 2nd flight"
- "Kent Couch Cluster Balloons". Couchballoons.com. 2012-07-14. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- "Lawn-chair balloonist flies from Oregon to Idaho — CNN.com".[dead link]
- "Balloon Priest's Body Identified Using DNA". Cbsnews.com. Associated Press. 2010-08-23. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
- Balloon Daredevil Floats Over English Channel , news.sky.com.
- BalloonSport, May–June 2011