Larry Walters: 'Lawnchair Larry's Balloon Flight Made Him Icarus Of 1982
Lawnchair Larry on TV and in the air. Sources: californiasun.co; Amazon.com
Larry Walters, or "Lawnchair Larry," took to the sky in 1982, ascending to a an altitude of over three miles in a chair lifted by helium-filled balloons. He's remembered as an everyday Joe with a dream, who executed a Wile E. Coyote-style plan and succeeded. He's also remembered as a fool, whose strange stunt was extremely dangerous, as he was unable to control his altitude or direction, and might have been swept out to sea. This is the story or cautionary tale of Lawnchair Larry, a folk hero who might inspire us to follow our dreams, but who also reminds us to think things through and be careful what we wish for.
A truck driver, Walters dreamed of flying, but his dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot never got off the ground. In fact, he joined the Air Force and fought in Vietnam because he wanted to fly the plane, but he was denied because of his poor eyesight. When he visited an Army-Navy surplus store, he saw helium balloons hanging from the ceiling, which awakened a new dream: flying using balloons. He did the research, took notes, but improperly calculated the amount of helium necessary to make the brief, low flight over the Mojave Desert that he planned.
Lawnchair Larry Bought 42 Weather Balloons
In 1982, Walters and his girlfriend bought 42 eight-foot beige weather balloons and a helium tank. He planned to attach the balloons to an aluminum lawn chair he had bought from Sears. He attached water bottles to use as ballast. Once he took off, the plan to land was simple: he was going to shoot the balloons one by one to slowly descend to the ground. He also planned to take along sandwiches and beer.
Lawnchair Larry Soared To 16,000 Feet
The day before his flight, he inflated the balloons and tethered them to his chair using nylon wire. He arranged them in six tiers, with the entire contraption rising about 180 feet high. He planned to rise about 30 feet and then level off, eat a sandwich and drink some beer, and once he was done, he would shoot the balloons. Things did not go as planned though. He had attached the chair to his jeep using a guy wire and instructed his fiancée to release the guy wire. Once his lawn chair was cut loose, it shot into the air, moving at a rate of thousands of feet per minute. The motion of the chair caused him to lose his sunglasses, but he did keep his altimeter which allowed him to track his height. He finally did level off at about 16,000 feet.
The Return To Earth
Walters had brought a CB radio, and he began sending out emergency messages that were were picked up by people on the ground, who stayed in contact with him. A TWA pilot spotted him and radioed that he was passing a man in a lawn chair who had a pistol. Air traffic control started following him on radar.
Eventually, he began shooting the balloons to start a gradual descent. After shooting out a few balloons, he dropped his pistol. This was not the only challenge he faced on the return to earth. The tethers from his balloons caught on some power lines, but he survived because luckily, the power company was alerted to his descent and cut off power to a Long Beach neighborhood. He was found dangling five feet off the ground. He hopped out of the chair as a crowd had surrounded him; as he told them, he had fulfilled his dream, but “wouldn’t do it again for anything.” Then, the Los Angeles Police arrested him. They jailed him for two days, and then the FAA tried to figure out which regulation he violated. Eventually, they fined him $4,000 with charges that included “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.” He fought the fines, and they were reduced to $1,500.
Lawnchair Larry's Lawn Chair Is In The Smithsonian's Collection
He autographed pieces of the popped balloons and gave them away. Unfortunately, he gave the chair away, so when the Smithsonian asked him to donate it, he was unable to fulfill their request. However, about 30 years after the flight, the kid he gave the lawn chair to, Jerry Fleck, donated it to the Air & Space Museum. Walters did achieve momentary fame, and was Johnny Carson’s guest on The Tonight Show and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. He then quit his job as a truck driver and worked for a brief time as a motivational speaker. In 1991, he appeared in an ad for Timex.
Lawnchair Larry's Story Ends In Tragedy
His goal was not to pursue fame, but to pursue flight. He did leave a legacy as there are those who practice the extreme sport of “cluster ballooning,” and he has had several imitators. On October 6, 1993, he hiked into the Los Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart. While he left no note explaining the motive of his suicide, when he was interviewed about his trip on the lawn chair, he provided an explanation: “a man can’t just sit around.”
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