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 often dreamed 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, soda, 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 electricity 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.
Walters's dangerous stunt had imitators. It also spawned the extreme sport of cluster ballooning.
- On July 7, 2007, Kent Couch, a 47-year-old gas station owner from Bend, Oregon, reportedly flew 240 miles (390 km) in his lawn chair, 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.
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- BalloonSport, May–June 2011