In 1997, a story about a lawnchair balloonist named Larry Walters began to circulate all over the Internet as a tale about another putative winner of the “Darwin Award” for stupidity above and beyond the call of duty. The story was essentially true, although Larry had actually made his flight fifteen years earlier, and many of the details presented in the 1997 version were made-up or greatly embellished.
First, the account of Larry’s flight as it appeared on the Internet in 1997:
Larry’s boyhood dream was to fly. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, poor eyesight disqualified him. When he was finally discharged, he had to satisfy himself with watching jets fly over his backyard.
One day, Larry, had a bright idea. He decided to fly. He went to the local Army-Navy surplus store and purchased 45 weather balloons and several tanks of helium. The weather balloons, when fully inflated, would measure more than four feet across. Back home, Larry securely strapped the balloons to his sturdy lawn chair. He anchored the chair to the bumper of his jeep and inflated the balloons with the helium. He climbed on for a test while it was still only a few feet above the ground. Satisfied it would work, Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite, loaded his pellet gun-figuring he could pop a few balloons when it was time to descend-and went back to the floating lawn chair. He tied himself in along with his pellet gun and provisions. Larry’s plan was to lazily float up to a height of about 30 feet above his back yard after severing the anchor and in a few hours come back down. Things didn’t quite work out that way. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair to his jeep, he didn’t float lazily up to 30 or so feet. Instead he streaked into the LA sky as if shot from a cannon.
He didn’t level of at 30 feet, nor did he level off at 100 feet. After climbing and climbing, he leveled off at 11,000 feet. At that height he couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons, lest he unbalance the load and really find himself in trouble. So he stayed there, drifting, cold and frightened, for more than 14 hours. Then he really got in trouble. He found himself drifting into the primary approach corridor of Los Angeles International Airport. A United pilot first spotted Larry. He radioed the tower and described passing a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. Radar confirmed the existence of an object floating 11,000 feet above the airport. LAX emergency procedures swung into full alert and a helicopter was dispatched to investigate. LAX is right on the ocean. Night was falling and the offshore breeze began to flow. It carried Larry out to sea with the helicopter in hot pursuit. Several miles out, the helicopter caught up with Larry. Once the crew determined that Larry was not dangerous, they attempted to close in for a rescue but the draft from the blades would push Larry away whenever they neared. Finally, the helicopter ascended to a position several hundred feet above Larry and lowered a rescue line. Larry snagged the line and was hauled back to shore. The difficult maneuver was flawlessly executed by the helicopter crew. As soon as Larry was hauled to earth, he was arrested by waiting members of the LAPD for violating LAX airspace. As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter dispatched to cover the daring rescue asked why he had done it. Larry stopped, turned and replied nonchalantly, “A man can’t just sit around.”
The incredible flight of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old Vietnam veteran and North Hollywood truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, took place on 2 July 1982. Larry filled 45 weather balloons with helium and tethered them in four tiers to an aluminum lawn chair he purchased at Sears for $110, loading his makeshift aircraft (dubbed the “Inspiration I”) with a large bottle of soda, milk jugs full of water for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter, and a camera.
Donning a parachute, Larry climbed into his chair from the roof of his girlfriend’s home in San Pedro while two friends stood at the ready to untether the craft. He took off a little earlier than expected, however, when his mooring line was cut by the roof’s sharp edges. As friends, neighbors, reporters and cameramen looked on, Larry Walters rocketed into the sky above San Pedro. A few minutes later Larry radioed the ground that he was sailing across Los Angeles Harbor towards Long Beach.
Walters had planned to fly 300 miles into the Mojave Desert, but the balloons took him up faster than expected and the wind didn’t cooperate, and Walters quickly found himself drifting 16,000 feet above Long Beach. (He later reported that he was “so amazed by the view” that he “didn’t even take one picture.”) As Larry and his lawnchair drifted into the approach path to Long Beach Municipal Airport, perplexed pilots from two passing Delta and TWA airliners alerted air traffic controllers about what appeared to be an unprotected man floating through the sky in a chair.
Meanwhile, Larry, feeling cold and dizzy in the thin air three miles above the ground, shot several of his balloons with the pellet gun to bring himself back down to earth. He attempted to aim his descent at a large expanse of grass of a north Long Beach country club, but Larry came up short and ended up entangling his tethers in a set of high-voltage power lines in Long Beach about ten miles from his liftoff site. The plastic tethers protected Walters from electrocution as he dangled above the ground until firemen and utility crews could cut the power to the lines (blacking out a portion of Long Beach for twenty minutes). Larry managed to maneuver his chair over a wall, step out, and cut the chair free. (He gave away the chair to some admiring neighborhood children, a decision he later regretted when his impromptu flight brought him far more fame than he had anticipated.)
Larry, who had just set a new altitude record for a flight with gas-filled clustered balloons (although his record was not officially recognized because he had not carried a proper altitude-recording device with him)
became an instant celebrity, but the Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Unable to revoke Walters’ pilot’s license because he didn’t have one, an FAA official announced that they would charge Walters “as soon as we figure out which part [of the FAA code] he violated.”
Larry hit the talk show circuit, appearing with Johnny Carson and David Letterman, hosting at a New York bar filled with lawn chairs for the occasion, and receiving an award from the Bonehead Club of Dallas while the FAA pondered his case.
After Walters’ hearing before an agency panel, the FAA announced on 17 December 1982 that they were fining him $4,000 for violating four regulations: operating “a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an air-worthiness certificate,” creating a collision danger to other aircraft, entering an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower,” and failing to take care to prevent hazards to the life and property of others. Larry quickly indicated that he intended to challenge the fines, stating sardonically that if “the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk.” He also informed the FAA (and reporters) that he couldn’t possibly pay the fine, because he’d put all the money he could save or borrow into his flight.
In April the FAA signalled their willingness to compromise by dropping one of the charges (they’d decided his lawnchair didn’t need an air-worthiness certificate after all) and lowering the fine to $3,000. Walters countered by offering to admit to failing to maintain two-way radio contact with the airport and to pay a $1,000 penalty if the other two charges were dropped. The FAA eventually agreed to accept a $1,500 payment because “the flight was potentially unsafe, but Walters had not intended to endanger anyone.”
After Larry told interviewers that he didn’t have a job or money and could use all the help he could get, patrons at Jumbo’s Diner in Port Richmond, California, took up a collection for him. Despite his punishment, Walters didn’t rule out the possibility of another flight. “We’ve been looking at the Bahamas and a couple of other possibilities. It depends on whether or not I can get somebody to finance it, because I sure can’t,” he stated.
Although Larry Walters never made another balloon flight, he did inspire someone else to try the same feat. On 1 January 1984, a licensed pilot, parachutist, and chute rigger named Kevin Walsh outfitted himself with 57 weather balloons, each six feet in diameter. Armed with five knives and carrying a parachute, Walsh tethered himself to the helium-filled balloons (no chair) and took off from Minuteman Airfield in Stow, Massachusetts, at 7:00 AM on New Year’s Day. He shot into the sky even faster than Larry had, hitting the 1,000-foot mark in twelve seconds, reaching 6,000 feet in two minutes, and peaking at 9,000 feet after four minutes.
When one of Walsh’s balloons popped, he came back down to 6,000 feet and settled in to enjoy the view. He had wrapped his tether lines in foil in the hope that they would show up on radar, and, sure enough, he was picked up on the screens of controllers at Boston’s Logan airport, where he produced a radar blip the size of three stacked jetliners. After a 45-minute flight Walsh cut himself free of the balloons and parachuted to the ground, landing in Hudson and walking away. Kevin claimed that he had been planning his flight for seven years and did it “just to make a positive statement about mankind.” Walters had been his inspiration: “I had to commend him for his ingenuity. That’s when my dream hooked up with reality.” Kevin Walsh soon found himself the recipient of the same kind of attention as his hero when he was cited with four violations of FAA regulations and fined $4,000.
Although Walters’ flight brought him instant fame, it never proved very lucrative for him. He was paid a few hundred dollars here and there for television appearances and made a little money as a motivational speaker, but it wasn’t until Timex paid him $1,000 in 1992 to appear in print advertisements featuring “adventurous individuals wearing Timex watches” that he saw any real payoff. Even then, he still hadn’t recouped the estimated $4,000 it had cost him to make the flight ten years earlier.
Not much else in life worked out for Larry, either — he broke up with his girlfriend of fifteen years, his speaking career didn’t pan out, and he worked only sporadically as a security guard. On 6 October 1993, Larry hiked to one of his favorite spots in Angeles National Forest and put a bullet through his heart. It was a sad end for the man who had made one the most celebrated flights since Lindbergh, a man who said, “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. I didn’t think that by fulfilling my goal in life — my dream — that I would create such a stir and make people laugh.”
Remarkably, Walters seemingly original plan to float up into the sky in a chair tethered to balloons then shoot them down one by one when he wanted to return to terra firma was eerily presaged by an E. B. White piece which appeared in The New Yorker sometime between 1936 and 1954. As reprinted in a 1984 collection of E. B. White tales, the pieces titled “Professor Picard Before” and “Professor Picard After” recount the saga of an adventurous professor who believed he could travel to the outer spheres in a basket attached to 2,000 toy balloons and would be able to bring himself back down by shooting out some of them. This being a work of fiction, though Picard descends in flames, he emerges unhurt and choked with laughter.
A fictionalized version of Larry Walters’ story was the basis for the musical “The Flight of the Lawn Chair Man,” which played in Philadelphia in 2000.