Day 861: The Lawn Chair Pilot Takes Off

originally published May 10, 2014

For those with unlimited imagination and an unfiltered sense of audacity, our gravitational tether to the ground ceases to be a limitation. Those who are terrified of heights may hug their earth-bound security with nary a blink toward the clouds, but for those of us who would happily dance a loopy jitterbug upon the glass floor at the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, or leap into a rickety balloon basket and drift with the wind, we’ll savor the taste of danger.

Controlled danger, of course. There’s a thick and distinct line between taking part in a Better-Business-Bureau-approved hot-air flight of fancy off the ground and truly pioneering a bold and inventive voyage into the air. There is a coveted room in history for the fearless exploits of people like Ferdinand von Zeppelin or Kevin Helicopter, who tossed away the shackles of gravity and poured their souls into something exquisite.

That room in history is packed with other names too. The Wright Brothers have the sweet spot near the bathroom (but not so close that they can smell the urinal pucks), and the Montgolfier Brothers (who built the first manned hot air balloon) have a seat by the window. And you’d better believe there’s a cushy, velvet-lined deck chair reserved for Larry Walters.

You’d never know it from his piercing gaze, but Larry didn’t have great eyesight. He’d always dreamed of being a pilot, but the Air Force wouldn’t sign off due to his poor vision. That was it, his dream was snuffed into an ashy heap of fuzzy eye charts and unfortunate genetics. A more rational and unimaginative person might have surrendered at that point, relegated themselves to being an airline passenger or a recreational skydiver. But not Larry.

Larry wanted his own craft to pilot. Sure, he could have taken up hang-gliding or bought himself a hot air balloon, but where’s the pioneer spirit in that? When he was on the young cusp of teenagerhood, Larry was in a military surplus store and he noticed a bunch of weather balloons tethered to the ceiling. He formulated the notion that all he’d need to achieve flight was a few of those balloons and a mess o’ helium.

He’d need a personal aircraft of course.

Larry and his girlfriend headed out to Sears one afternoon in 1982 and picked up a lawn chair for $110. He was in his mid-30s and at that point in life where he realized his childhood dreams were on the verge of becoming regrets if he didn’t act, and his girlfriend – either because she understood his insanity or because she just loved him that much – stood by his side. They bought 45 large 8-foot weather balloons and a few tanks of helium.

His home base was San Pedro, California, a little elbow-nub of land in the southwestern corner of Los Angeles. Larry invited some friends over and prepared his vessel – dubbed the Inspiration I – for flight. He brought a pellet gun (for shooting the balloons – there was really no other option for descent), a CB radio, a camera, some sandwiches (an inflight meal was not going to be served) and some beer, because you’d be crazy to do something like this without beer. He also strapped on a parachute, just in case.

The chair was tethered to Larry’s Jeep in his girlfriend’s driveway. He climbed in and the rope was cut. It was on.

Despite having had no training on a plane, a glider, or even a hot air balloon (which might have been a smart move), Larry was quite prepared. He had water jugs hanging all around him for ballast, and he even had a flight plan: 300 miles into the heart of the Mojave Desert, a cool slide across the ocean-blown winds, followed by a gentle descent into the sand. No one, not even Larry himself, anticipated that he’d gain altitude as quickly as he did.

Within a few short minutes, the balloons had lifted Larry to about 16,000 feet above the ground. That’s over three miles separating him from the upper fronds of the palm trees below. Also, the wind was not rocketing him toward the desert; it was gently lolling him eastward over Long Beach. The view was undoubtedly breathtaking. Larry later claimed he was too dumbstruck by the wondrous perspective to snap a single photo. Also, he was probably terrified to move.

Larry could have blasted a couple of balloons and drooped down a little bit from the clouds, but he was worried that doing so might unbalance his load and send him toppling out of his chair. Unfortunately he was straying into the primary approach corridor of the Long Beach Airport, which is close to the shore. After about 45 minutes he had no choice. One by one the balloons were shot apart.

And then he dropped his pellet gun overboard.

He was adrift now, without the ability to control his altitude or course, but fortunately sinking a little with each passing second – he’d evidently popped enough balloons to do so. Larry’s flight came to an end when his balloons collided with a power line, frizzing the local power and causing a 20-minute blackout in Long Beach, but doing Larry no physical harm. He climbed down from his chair triumphant, and subsequently got arrested.

It took a while for the FAA to figure out how to charge Larry (they hadn’t accounted for this brand of mayhem yet), but eventually settled on a $4000 fine for violations under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations. After an appeal, his fine was reduced to $1500. Larry was a star now though, appearing on The Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman. He became a motivational speaker. And of course he spawned a fleet of imitators.

Gas station owner Kent Couch took a couple of flights in a lawn chair in 2007 and 2008, flying from his home in Bend, Oregon and once making it across the Idaho border. He covered 240 miles and developed his own method for gently releasing the helium to allow for a smoother descent. A Roman Catholic priest named Adelir Antonio de Carli departed from Ampere, Brazil underneath 600 party balloons in 2008. He tried another flight three months later but neglected to check the weather forecast; after reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet, de Carli was caught in a storm and sent to a watery grave in the Atlantic.

Things didn’t end well for Larry Walters, however. His fame was short-lived, and apart from a few security guard gigs and a 1992 Timex magazine ad, the denouement after his flight was disappointing. He broke up with his girlfriend, and shot himself through the heart one day while hiking through the Angeles National Forest. He left no note, no explanation. He was 44.

It could be that achieving that unrestrained sense of liberation over Long Beach was the pinnacle of sensation for Larry. Maybe every moment of fleeting joy that came since was a let-down by comparison. Perhaps his work on this planet was done – his chair now sits on loan in the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and his voyage made him a genuine pioneer in a bizarre corner of the world of air travel.

Maybe he could never find peace in the world because he’d already discovered where it was hiding: among the clouds.

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