On Sunday, Travis wrote about Car Talk, and in passing mentioned the Tappet Brothers’ fondness for “the story about the guy who attached balloons to his lawn chair and floated around for awhile.” As it happens, the Larry the Lawn Chair Guy is one of my all-time favorite news stories, one I love to share, and it really deserves a moment in the sun. A fellow named Mark Barry has the most comprehensive and accurate version of the story, but I’ll hit the highlights.
I was 23 when Lawn Chair Larry slipped the surly bonds of earth; I actually clipped out the newspaper article at the time, because I thought it was so perfect and inspiring, that ideal combination of vision, ingenuity, and the determination to do a spectacularly stupid thing and somehow pull it off. Larry’s great adventure has been the springboard for a movie, a Broadway musical, a couple of episodes of TV series, a hoax, and possibly even the movie Up. Because it’s just that inspiring.
“It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.”
In 1982, Larry Walters, a 33-year-old truck driver in North Hollywood (which is nowhere near Hollywood), decided to finally carry out the plan he’d been mulling over for 20-odd years. At his girlfriend’s home in San Pedro (a town near the Los Angeles Harbor), Walters attached 42 helium-filled 6-foot-diameter weather balloons to a lawn chair, hopped aboard with a CB radio, parachute, some snacks, two liters of Coca-Cola, and a B-B gun, and had a friend cut the rope that tethered his conveyance to the bumper of a car.
His plan was to ascend to the end of a second rope attached to the chair, but when he reached the end of that line, about 150 feet up, the chair paused for just a moment before the rope snapped and the chair bolted skyward at over 1,000 feet per minute.
He very quickly found himself 16,000 feet in the air, carried by the breeze toward the flight paths of aircraft coming into Long Beach Airport. Walters had conversations via radio with his understandably freaked-out girlfriend (AKA “ground crew”) and the volunteer monitors on the CB emergency frequency, channel 9, who relayed information to some annoyed air traffic controllers.
There were a few misadventures; the speed of his ascent resulted in him dropping his glasses, but fortunately he also had a pair of prescription sunglasses with him, so he was able to see his great adventure. After about two hours of cruising along and waving at passing aircraft, when he realized that the wind might very well carry him out to sea, he began his landing procedure, which was to shoot the balloons with his pellet gun until he’d popped enough to descend. After popping ten balloons, he dropped the gun. Fortunately, ten was the magic number, and Walters returned to earth, landing on some power lines in Long Beach and causing a blackout. He was able to free himself from the entanglement and leap the last five feet to the ground into someone’s backyard and into the waiting arms of law enforcement.
Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy told the local newspaper, “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.” Walters initially was fined $4,000 for violations under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations, including operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.” Walters appealed, and the fine was reduced to $1,500. A charge of operating a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate” was dropped, as it was not applicable to his class of aircraft.
The whole thing had cost him about $4000, not counting the legal fees and fines. When asked why he did it, he explained “a man can’t just sit around.”
Offers came in. He made some money as a motivational speaker. I remember a news report that Sears briefly considered giving him an endorsement deal to promote their sturdy lawn chairs, but apparently their legal department vetoed the idea. Eventually the Timex watch company featured him in a commercial and paid him enough to finally break even on the scheme. Sadly, post-aeronautic life was not good to Larry Walters, and in 1993, he died by his own hand. 35 years later, Walters continues to inspire many.
In the years that followed, his story became an urban legend, earning him an honorary mention in the Darwin Awards. TV’s Mythbusters tested the story, with Adam Savage going aloft in a balloon-outfitted chair of his own. The show also dug up the FAA’s official report to verify that it really happened. Featured in the third episode of the series, Lawnchair Larry’s story was one of the first ‘myths’ to be confirmed by the show.
In 2003, Australian writer-director Jeff Balsmeyer produced Danny Deckchair, a film inspired by Walters, available on Amazon video (and other outlets that won’t pay me if you watch it). This was followed in 2004 by The Flight of the Lawnchair Man, a musical by Peter Ullian and Robert Lindsey Nassif, in which DIY aviator Jerry Gorman ascends to the stratosphere and meets Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Leonardo Da Vinci. You can watch the Cedar Rapids Opera production on YouTube or buy the cast album (as part of 3hree, a collection of three one-act musicals).
CNN reported in 2009 that six-year-old Falcon Heene had accidentally launched himself in his father’s home-made “storm chasing” balloon. For hours, the network breathlessly covered the hugely expensive pursuit to rescue the boy in the balloon; when it was discovered that “Balloon Boy” Heene was not in the wreckage, many worried that he had fallen to earth at some point along the way, until he was discovered hiding in the attic of the family home. Later, when the family appeared with Wolf Blitzer to milk the publicity, young Falcon was asked by his father why he had hidden in the garage attic and ignored searchers’ cries, Falcon replied, “Um … you guys said … that, um … we did this for the show.” The family still denies it was a hoax, though Falcon’s mother admitted it in a sworn affidavit two days after the incident. I doubt Heene’s attention-seeking father would have ever thought of the balloon gimmick had it not been for Walters’ inspiration.
In 2015, filmmaker Nirvan Mullick, best known for creating the short film about Caine’s Arcade, announced that he was making a documentary about Walters. You can follow The Lawnchair Pilot on Twitter and Facebook, but there haven’t been any updates in quite some time.
Today “cluster ballooning” is an “extreme sport” with participants around the world. So if anyone asks what I want for Christmas, the answer is a lawn chair and 40 weather balloons, because a man can’t just sit around.