What do you do if your life’s ambition – to become a pilot with the US Air Force – gets shot down by poor eyesight? If you’re Larry Walters, you take matters into your own hands. In 1982 the California truck-driver, unperturbed by the stringent recruitment standards of the USAF, decided to take to the air in his own unique way: by attaching a large cluster of weather balloons to a lawn chair.
First, Larry and his girlfriend forged a requisition slip from his employer, Filmfair Studios, enabling them to purchase the 45 8-foot (2.4 m) weather balloons by saying they were to be used in a commercial. They then set about inflating the balloons and attaching them to Larry’s patio chair. He put on a parachute, strapped himself in and took off, carrying with him only the absolute essentials – a pellet gun (to shoot balloons if he went too high), a CB radio, a camera, sandwiches and, most essential
of all, a four-pack of beer.
The plan was to float 30 feet (9 m) above the Mojave Desert for a few hours, then effect a pleasant and gradual descent. To Larry’s horror, however, the chair rose from his yard in San Pedro much faster than expected – he was eventually to reach a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) – and was soon drifting over Los Angeles and into the primary approach corridor for Long Beach Airport, where he was spotted by several commercial airliners.
By this point, Larry had achieved his primary aim – to fly – but now faced the problem of how not to fly. Floating in LA airspace was not, he knew, going to make him very popular. Initially, though, he was too scared to shoot any of the balloons in case he unbalanced and fell from his madcap contraption. He tried getting in touch with REACT – a citizen’s band radio monitoring organisation. As he put it to them:
‘… the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorised balloon launch and, uh, I’m sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I’m okay.’
After 45 minutes of literally hanging around, he eventually plucked up the courage to shoot a few balloons – just before the gun went overboard. Fortunately, the cull, as far as it went, proved sufficient to get him moving in the right direction. The slow descent concluded among power cables, blacking out an entire Long Beach neighbourhood for 20 minutes.
Upon picking him up, the Long Beach Police Department made a decisive statement: ‘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.’ Walters was eventually charged with ‘operating a civil aircraft within an airport traffic area without establishing and maintaining 2-way communications with the control tower’. He was fined $4,000 – but his pilot’s licence couldn’t be suspended, since he didn’t have one.
Having achieved his dream, Larry spent a short period as a motivational speaker and appeared on both The David Letterman Show and The Late Show. Eventually, however, he went back to a simple life – working for the United States Forest Service and as a security guard. He died in 1993, but will always be remembered as ‘Lawnchair Larry’, inspiring a song, various copycat flights and the 2003 Australian film Danny Deckchair, starring Rhys Ifans.
Larry was by no means the only weather balloon pilot – there have been many cases of people putting thin bits of rubber between themselves and an unpleasant meeting with terra firma. One such case was the Brazilian priest Father Adelir Antônia de Carli, whose 2008 foray into the atmosphere left him both wet and headless.
Seemingly well prepared – he was an experienced skydiver, and he’d trained extensively in survival skills prior to his launch – there was one huge gap in his safety plan, quickly exposed when he caught a breeze and got blown out across the Atlantic. While floating over the ocean, he rang the authorities from his mobile phone to ask someone to explain how his GPS equipment worked. Not long after that he lost contact entirely. A few months later, some of his balloons, along with the lower half
of his body, were found floating in the sea.
On a happier note, Tom Morgan – a member of the Bristol-based League of Adventurists, reached a height of 8,000 feet (2,438 m) in October 2017 by tying 100 helium balloons to a camping chair and flying over the Sahara. He returned to Earth safe, dry and with all parts of his body intact.
Words: Jen Rowe
The Odysseum is available to pre-order via Amazon.