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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.

Launch Day!!!

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'...

His eyeglasses ripped from his face, Walters, a North Hollywood truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, was soaring upwards at an alarming rate, when he had expected to attain level flight at merely 100 feet above the ground.

Using the CB radio he carried aboard the lawn chair with him, he radioed his girlfriend on the ground:

van Duesen: You're going to be directly over us, so, in a few, about a minute or two. So look down and see if you can see us. Over.
Walters: Ok, I'll be looking for ya'.
van Duesen: We can already see your balloons. Maybe when you get over...you're going to go into, you're going to go into some blue stuff. Can you see us down now? Can you see us? Over.
Walters: Carol, I'm, I'm almost 6,000 feet over. I can't see much of anything (laugh) except for a lot of houses. Over.

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.

From San Pedro, Walters and his balloons began to drift over Long Beach, and crossed the primary approach corridor of Long Beach airport. Airlines pilot from both TWA and Delta reported seeing him to the control tower at Long Beach airport.

'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.

REACT: What information do you wish me to tell them [air traffic control] at this time as to your location and your difficulty?

Walters: 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.

In disbelief in what they are hearing, the crew at REACT asks further questions of Walters:

REACT: What color is the balloon?
Walters: The balloons are beige in color. I'm in a bright blue sky which would be very highly visible. Over.
REACT: [Balloon] size?
Walters: Size approximately, uh, seven feet in diameter each. And I probably have about 35 left. Over.
REACT: You're saying you have a cluster of 35 balloons??
Walters: These are 35 weather balloons. Not one single balloon, sir. It is 35 weather balloons.
REACT: Roger, stand by this frequency.

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."

Afterwards...

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).

In a brief period of time, Walters toured as a motivational speaker after his flight.  He quit his job as a truck driver, but never was able to make much money from his fame.  Walters also received the "Bonehead of the Year" prize in February of 1983 from the "Bonehead Club" of Dallas for his misadventure, as well as accepted invitations to appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and "The Late Night with David Letterman". 

In September of 1982, he told a reporter from the United Press that he vowed never to do it again, but a group of San Diego businessmen "have offered [him] a substantial sum of money" to fly a new lawn chair airship, to be called "The Spirit of San Diego."   Evidentially, nothing even became of that venture.

However, it was not until 1992, when the Timex watch company recognized Larry Walters in an advertisement based on  'adventurous individuals,' that Walters "broke even" on the expensive stunt from ten years earlier.

But Walters never found happiness.  Later on in his life, Walters hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and did volunteer work for the United States Forest Service.

On October 6th,1993, at the age of 44, he hiked to his favorite spot in the Angeles National Forest, and shot himself in the heart.  He left no suicide note.

His remains are interned at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills, in their Columbarium of Valor.  He had no children, and is survived by his mother and two sisters.

Larry Walters, as he appeared in a 1992 Timex watch ad

And Yet...

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." 

However, several authors, including George Plimpton, have found inspiration in the tale of Larry Walters' flight.  They regale others of the tale of an earth-bound man would set a simple goal, and attained it through perseverance and sacrifice.

And with its status as an urban legend, it has became a source for movie plots (the 2004 Australian film "Danny Deckchair" paralleled some aspects of the Larry Walters' story), television program plot devices (an episode of the 1980's television show, the A-Team, featured a prison escape scene in which the character of Murdoch ties trash bags to a lawn chair, which he then inflated with hot air using hair dryers, allowing him to float up and out of the prison yard), and even myth-busting.

On the 20th anniversary of the Walters lawn chair balloon flight, the "MythBusters" , a TV documentary crew tethered a person to a lawn chair with 16 helium balloons for one of the pilot episodes of their television series - in a quest to debunk the urban legend.

After ascending to a height of 75 feet, the passenger safely descended by shooting out some of the balloons, with the actual event behind the myth being verified by documents provided by the FAA.  It was one of the first myths labeled as "confirmed" by the MythBusters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.

Twenty-five years after Walters' flight, cluster ballooning has taken on new life.  Two Americans,  Kent Couch and John Ninomiya, have separate cluster balloon projects.

The MythBusters go to work on the legend of Larry Walters

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This page last updated Friday, November 21, 2014

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