Lawnchair Larry flight
On July 2, 1982, Larry Walters made a 45-minute flight in a homemade airship made of an ordinary patio chair and 45 helium-filled weather balloons. The aircraft rose to an altitude of over 15,000 feet (4,600 m) and floated from the point of takeoff in San Pedro, California, into and violating controlled airspace near Los Angeles International Airport. During the landing, the aircraft became entangled in power lines, but Walters was able to safely climb down. The flight attracted worldwide media attention and inspired a later movie and imitators.
Lawrence Richard Walters (April 19, 1949 – October 6, 1993) 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, after seeing them hanging from the ceiling of a military surplus store. He had a career as an American truck driver.
Preparation and flight
In mid-1982, Walters and his girlfriend at the time, Carol Van Deusen, purchased 45 eight-foot (2.4 m) 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.
On July 2, 1982, Walters attached 43 of 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 West 7th Street in San Pedro. He took his pellet gun, a CB radio, sandwiches, 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 16,000 feet (4,900 m) and was spotted from two commercial airliners. 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, Walters shot several balloons, taking care not to unbalance the load. He then accidentally dropped his pellet gun overboard. He descended slowly, until the balloons' dangling cables got caught in a power line at 432 45th Street in Long Beach. The power line broke, causing a 20-minute electricity blackout. He landed unharmed on the ground.
Walters 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.
The aircraft was dubbed Inspiration I. Lawn Chair Larry was awarded the title of "At-Risk Survivor" in the 1993 Darwin Awards.
10 days after his flight, Walters appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. He 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' 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 was on loan to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, on exhibition through 2014.
Later life and death of Walters
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.
- On July 7, 2007, Kent Couch, a 47-year-old American 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; part of 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 continued 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.
- On July 6, 2015, Daniel Boria of Calgary, Canada, tied about 100 helium balloons to a garden chair and flew over his city in a publicity stunt. He escaped his balloon pod by cutting himself loose and deploying his parachute.
- On October 20, 2017, Tom Morgan of Bristol, England, reached heights of 8,000 ft (2,438m) using 100 color helium balloons and has flown 25 km (15.5 miles) over South Africa.
In popular culture
In its August 1987 issue McCall's magazine published a short story based on Walter's flight called "The Perilous Flight of Henry O'Grady" by Jane Sherwin. The story was translated into Braille in the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind.
He is listed as an extraordinary person in the book Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World's Most Fascinating Individuals written by Michael Hearst. Hearst has also written a song about Lawnchair Larry.
In the 1983 PBS WonderWorks film, How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days, Milo Crimpley completes his third and final lesson, “Do something you’ve never done before and never thought you could do”, by flying a cluster-ballooned lawnchair to victory in the annual kite contest.“
In the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Larry Walters's story is told in the section "Larry Walters Flies". In it, the narrator explains what happened and why, giving it a spin to tell of imagination and dreams.
In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "The Sponge Who Could Fly", SpongeBob attempts to fly by using flying devices including a lawn chair with balloons tied to it. He doesn't even have a chance to sit on it, as when he removes the ballast, the chair flies away.
In the King of the Hill episode "The Miseducation of Bobby Hill", Dale has Bill sit on a chair similar to the one Larry used, only for Bill to fly away and land on the other side of town.
In the 1987 Hill Street Blues episode "Days of Swine and Roses," Lieutenant Buntz encounters a man who has just taken off in a lawn chair with weather balloons and a BB gun tied to it, in an attempt to win a local radio station's "outrageous acts" contest.
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