Claim: A man soared three miles above Los Angeles in an “aircraft” consisting of an aluminum lawn chair tethered to helium weather balloons.
Origins: 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:
One day, Larry, had a bright idea. He decided to fly. He went to the local Army-Navy surplus store and purchased He didn’t level of at
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
He didn’t level of at
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
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
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
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
When one of Walsh’s balloons popped, he came back down to
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
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
Sightings: 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.
Last updated: 1 January 2005
Also told in:
Flynn, Mike. The Best Book of Bizarre But True Stories Ever. London: Carlton, 1999. ISBN 1-85868-558-3 (p. 184).