To fly: the dream of man and flightless bird alike.
-Col. Les Hapablap, "The Simpsons"
In 1982, Larry Walters was a truck driver living in North Hollywood, California. Although he had always dreamt of flying, his terrestrial occupation and the fickle whim of gravity had conspired to keep him earthbound for all of his 33 years. On July 2, 1982, all of that changed.
Walters bought 45 large weather balloons, 8 feet in diameter each, and several tanks of helium from a military surplus store. In the backyard of a friend in San Pedro, California, Walters strapped the balloons to his trusty lawn chair and tethered the chair to the bumper of his jeep. Climbing aboard with a parachute, portable CB radio, some soda, and a BB gun for altitude control, Walters had friends inflate the balloons, and he rose into the air.
There are conflicting reports about whether the tether line broke accidentally, or whether it was Walters' plan to float freely all along. In any event, freed from his automotive ballast, Walters shot up into the sky, finally leveling off around 16,000 feet and beginning a gentle southern drift directly into the approach corridor for the Long Beach (Ca.) Airport. Pilots from Delta Air Lines and Trans World Airways both reported having seen a man floating in a lawn chair with a gun at 16,000 feet. (How does one preface such a report?) Traffic to the airport was immediately diverted elsewhere, and helicopters were sent up to investigate.
Meanwhile, despite having lost his glasses in the rapid ascent when the chair took off, Walters managed to shoot out about 10 of the balloons, before numbness from the high altitude caused him to fumble with the gun and drop it overboard. For the next few hours or so (reports of Walters' time aloft range from 45 minutes to 14 hours), Walters drifted with the wind, away from the airport towards Los Angeles Harbor, while remaining in contact with his "ground crew" and emergency personnel over the radio.
Walters' chair, which he had dubbed "Inspiration I," eventually descended, finally becoming entangled in some power lines, knocking out electrical service to portions of Long Beach, California for about 20 minutes. Walters, finding himself hanging about five feet off the ground, merely unstrapped himself from the chair and dropped back to earth. (Some versions of the story insist that a rescue helicopter had to lower a rope down to Walters to drag him to safety. However, this event is not mentioned in any of the newspaper accounts written at the time and is probably apocryphal.) He somehow managed to free the chair and gave it to some neighborhood children who had gathered around. Walters was later quoted in the press as explaining his journey by saying "A man just can't sit around."
The Federal Aviation Adminstration was not pleased with Walters, and an FAA spokesman said at the time, "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." On December 18, 1982, the FAA formally charged Walters with four violations: operating a craft without an airworthiness certificate, creating a collision danger, entering an airport zone without maintaining radio contact, and endangering life and property. After some negotiations, Walters managed to have the FAA's proposed fines reduced from $4,000 to $1,500. Meanwhile, Walters had become a minor celebrity, and appeared on both the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Late Night With David Letterman, as well as in a Timex watch advertisement.
But stardom was fleeting, and Walters' attempt to make it on the motivational speaking circuit didn't pan out. Walters struggled along financially for several years before finally committing suicide on Oct. 6, 1993. Walters, then 44 years old, hiked to a favorite spot in Angeles National Forest, and shot himself in the heart. His body lies in a mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetary in Los Angeles with a plaque that reads:
April 19, 1949 - Oct. 6, 1993
Lawn Chair Pilot
As if to add an improbable coda to an already improbable story, it is worth noting that in 2000, a low-budget musical based on Walters' flight, "The Man in the Flying Lawnchair
", received good reviews from performances in New York and London.
www.markbarry.com/amazing/lawnchairman.html has a good collection of newspaper articles, photos, a map, and even a link to the audio recording of Walters' CB transmissions.
See also: www.snopes2.com/spoons/noose/balloon.htm