Larry Walters - "Lawn Chair Pilot"
July 2nd, 1982
The Dreams of Youth...
Born Lawrence Richard Walters in April of 1949, Larry had always dreamed of flying. At the age of 13, on a visit to an Army-Navy surplus store, he saw several empty weather balloons hanging from the store's ceiling, and thought that it would be an interesting way to attain flight. But a more practical way, learning to fly an airplane, was much more reasonable. Nevertheless, the method was filed away in Walters' subconscious.
When he came of age, he enlisted in the United States Air Force, with the hope of finally learning to fly. However, it was discovered that he had poor eyesight - killing his flight career before it could even begin.
After leaving the Air Force, Walters began to hatch his plan. It called for him to attach a couple of helium-filled weather balloons to a lawn chair, then cut away an anchor, and float above his backyard at a height of about 30 feet for a couple of hours. The flight would end when he would use a pellet gun to pop the balloons, one after another, to gently return to the earth below.
Walters, 33, living in North Hollywood and working as a truck driver and deliveryman for a film production company, invested $4,000 in the project, purchasing nearly four dozen surplus weather balloons from California Toytime Balloons (under the guise of being for use in filming a television commercial), compressed helium cylinders, a sturdy aluminum lawn chair from Sears, and various other bits of equipment for the flight. Walters even learned how to skydive, and planned on wearing a parachute for the flight - just in case.
The night before the launch of a short "test flight" of the contraption, Walters and several friends met at the San Pedro home of Carol van Duesen, Larry's then-girlfriend. The crew inflated balloons throughout the night, and rigged together the chair and assorted equipment.
At 11 o'clock on the morning of July 2, 1982, Walters sat atop his lawn chair under his towering apparatus, christened "Inspiration I". Four tiers of helium-filled balloons, over 40 in total, rose tall above him. The flight "plan" called for Walters and his balloons to fly out over Long Beach, and 300 miles east, towards the Mojave Desert
Walters was equipped with an altimeter, parachute, life jacket (in the event of a "water landing"), a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, a sandwich, and Citizen's Band (CB) walkie-talkie. He also had a BB-gun pistol to shoot the balloons and lower his altitude, and took a camera but would later admit to interviewers, "I was so amazed by the view, I didn't even take one picture."
Tethered to the ground via three lines tied off to the bumper of a Jeep, Walters waited with anticipation as the ropes were to be cut. But after Carol cut one of the tethers holding the craft earth-bound, the other two ropes snapped suddenly. The balloons, and Walters in his lawn chair, were rocketed skyward!
'The Best Laid Plans'...
Using the CB radio he carried aboard the lawn chair with him, he radioed his girlfriend on the ground:
Fearing that he might unbalance the load, he
did not dare shoot any balloons with his pellet gun. Instead, he spent
about two hours aloft and soared up to 16,000 feet -- over three miles high.
'Now on Final Approach...'
Knowing that this was possible, Walters used his CB radio and, using Channel 9 (the emergency CB radio channel), attempted to notify the tower. The conversation was recorded by the Crest-REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communication Team) in Corona, California.
In disbelief in what they are hearing, the crew at REACT asks further questions of Walters:
Shivering in the thin high-altitude air, he finally used his pellet gun to start popping balloons, in order to lower his altitude. Descending, he aimed, as best he could, to land at the Virginia County Club in Long Beach. But, he descended short of the golf course, and headed into a residential neighborhood in Long Beach.
"The part that was scary was the last 300 feet (before landing), with the rooftops and telephone poles coming up so fast," Walters said. "I was praying that I wouldn't hit one of those power lines and be fried or sizzled." Walters said in a interview shortly after landing.
He dumped the gallon jugs of water tied to the chair to slow the gadget's landing but, on the way down, his balloons draped over a set of power lines. Left dangling five feet off of the ground, the police had to shut down electricity in the Long Beach neighborhood for 20 minutes in order for Walters to safely egress his wounded wonder, down and into the backyard of a house in Long Beach.
"By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream. But I wouldn't do this again for anything."
He was immediately arrested by waiting members of the Los Angeles Police Department. When asked by a reporter why he had done it, Walters replied "a man can't just sit around."
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was initially baffled by the incident. The regional safety inspector, Neal Savoy, reportedly 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." But Walters had been catapulted, unexpectedly and unprepared, from obscurity to national fame. For a time, Walters hired an agent to handle the deluge of interview requests. But for unexplained reasons, he decided that was a bad idea.
"No more agents," he said. "I am on my own. Everything happened so fast and so many people came to me saying, 'We're looking out for you.' I'm going to handle everything on my own now, one to one. To me, that's fair."
In December of 1982, Walters was accused by the FAA of committing several violations of the Federal Aviation Act, including operating a "civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate" and operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area "without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower." The resulting fines totaled $4,000.
Walters retorted with, "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." 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 during an interview.
Walters appealed the violations, and admitted to only one of the charges (not establishing and maintaining two-way contact with the airport control tower). According to the FAA, "The flight was potentially unsafe, but Walters had not intended to endanger anyone". The fine was reduced to $1,500 in April of 1983.
Life After Flight...
Several of the deflated six-feet wide balloons were signed by Walters, and given to
neighborhood children. The lawn chair used in Walters' flight was given to an
local boy, although Walters later admitted he regretted doing so - the
Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate it to the National Air & Space Museum.
Also, according to Ballooning magazine, Walters had also inadvertently set a world altitude record for flight with
gas-filled cluster balloons, breaking the old record of 3,740 feet, but it could not be officially recorded because his
lawn chair lacked an altimeter with recording capabilities (and the fact that
the flight was unsanctioned as a record attempt).
The flight of Larry Walters, however, had not been totally forgotten. Such an unlikely set of circumstances made for too tempting a tale by storytellers, propelling the anecdote from fact into urban legend.
In 1997, a greatly-embellished version (involving beer, a flight leg out over the ocean, and an attempt at rescue by helicopter) of Larry Walter's balloon flight made its way around the Internet, as part of the Darwin Awards, a tongue-in-cheek honor named after evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, honoring certain people who kill, or in rare cases sterilize themselves accidentally by attempting to do stupid feats or making careless mistakes. The awards have been presented since 1991, however some are awarded for feats which have met the criteria even as early as 1874. As Walters had survived his nominating feat, he was ineligible to receive the award, but nevertheless garnered an "Honorable Mention."