1982: Frustrated in his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot, a southern California truck driver gets himself airborne anyway with the help of a lawn chair and 42 helium-filled weather balloons. Airborne, as in 16,000 feet worth of airborne.
Poor eyesight put the kibosh on Larry Walters’ top-gun dreams, but the man was determined to fly. You’d think he’d just go out and get himself a commercial pilot’s license, but, no…. Walters said later that he had nurtured the idea of flying using balloons for 20 years, ever since seeing helium balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army-Navy surplus store.
Opportunity finally knocked in 1982, when Walters and his girlfriend purchased 42 eight-foot weather balloons and several tanks of helium. From there, the idea was simplicity itself: Attach a garden-variety, Sears aluminum lawn chair to the balloons, strap on some water jugs for ballast, take along a pellet pistol to shoot out the balloons to control the descent, pack a parachute and carry a CB radio, and maybe, with luck, sail across the desert to the Rocky Mountains.
Oh, and take along some beer and sandwiches for the ride.The doughty craft, dubbed Inspiration I, was cut loose from its moorings July 2, with Walters securely strapped into his patio chair. He ascended rapidly — much more rapidly than he anticipated — and rose above San Pedro.
He said he’d intended to fly only to 30 feet or so before leveling off, while munching sandwiches and pounding a few Miller Lites. Instead, he shot skyward at the rate of about a thousand feet a minute and didn’t level off until he’d reached 16,000 feet.
He was way up high, and he was scared and probably not hungry anymore (and had lost his glasses to boot), but now he had another, more immediate problem: He was drifting into the flight path of incoming planes to Los Angeles International Airport. A clearly worried Walters used his CB radio to transmit a mayday call, which was picked up by operators on the ground who then maintained contact with him throughout the flight.
Despite his precarious situation, after the initial shock wore off Walters was the picture of calm. He told those now monitoring him that knew he was in trouble, one way or another. Either he’d plunge to his death, get sucked into a jet engine or else get busted big-time when he landed.
He wasn’t run down by a commercial airliner. Instead, Walters continued drifting, and was spotted by the pilots of at least two inbound LAX flights, including a TWA captain who radioed that he was passing a man in a lawn chair at 16,000 feet, who was holding a pistol in his hand. An incredulous tower received the incredulous report, made a radar fix and began tracking him.
Eventually, screwing up his courage, Walters shot out several balloons. He began a slow descent but dropped the pistol before he could shoot out any more. Ninety minutes after liftoff from San Pedro, he was safely back on terra firma, but not until the tethers hanging from his balloons fouled some power lines, knocking out electricity in a Long Beach neighborhood. The chair was dangling about 5 feet off the ground when Walters hopped down to a waiting reception committee from the LAPD.
When asked by a reporter why he’d made such a foolhardy flight, Walters was ready with a pithy reply: « A man can’t just sit around. »
Well, he could sit around … in jail. The authorities took their usual humorless approach to this flight of fancy. Walters was arrested, jugged for a time and then released while the FAA tried to determine which of its regulations he had broken.
He was eventually charged with operating an aircraft near an airport « without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower. » The original $4,000 fine was reduced to $1,500 when the agency dropped the seemingly more relevant charge of operating a « civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an Airworthiness Certificate. »
Helium-filled balloons? Lawn chair? Pellet gun? What’s not airworthy?
Walters’ stunt earned him his requisite five minutes of fame. « Lawn Chair Larry, » as he became known, appeared on both the Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman, and earned a 1982 honorable mention from the Darwin Awards (which he presumably could have won outright by shooting out a few more of those balloons). The Bonehead Club of Dallas awarded him its top prize for the year.
But fame is a fickle mistress, and it didn’t go well for Walters in subsequent years. He quit his truck-driving job and tried his hand as a motivational speaker, which didn’t pan out.
He appeared on a few game shows and was featured in a print ad for Timex watches in the early ’90s, but that didn’t pay much. By the time the Smithsonian came along requesting the lawn chair for its air museum — or was it the pop-culture wing? — Walters had already given it to some cheeky kid who’d asked for it first.
After that, Walters essentially withdrew from public life, spending a lot of time hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles and doing volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1993, only 44, he committed suicide in the Angeles National Forest by shooting himself in the heart.