Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lawnchair Larry

"[If] the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk." -- Larry Walters.

Larry Walters was born on this day in 1949.

A 33-year old Vietnam veteran and truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, Walters set an unofficial altitude record for a flight with gas-filled clustered balloons when, on July 2, 1982, he filled 45 weather balloons with helium, tethered them to an aluminum lawn chair, and took off in his craft, dubbed the Inspiration I, from the roof of his girlfriend's home in San Pedro, California. As friends, neighbors and reporters looked on, Walters sailed into the sky across Los Angeles Harbor toward Long Beach carrying a bottle of soda, water bottles for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter and a camera.

The balloons took Walters up faster than he had expected, and he soon found himself drifting 16,000 feet above Long Beach. Delta and TWA airline pilots flying over nearby Long Beach Municipal Airport alerted air traffic controllers that a man in a lawnchair was floating across the flight path, while Walters, cold and dizzy from the high altitude, began shooting at some of his own balloons in an attempt to bring himself down. Aiming toward the Long Beach Country Club, Walters missed his mark, landing in some high voltage wires about ten miles from his launch site; while the landing knocked out power in a Long Beach neighborhood, the plastic tethers insulated him from electrocution, and he returned to the ground without injury.

The Federal Aviation Administration fined Walters $4,000 for violating regulations relating to airworthiness, creating a danger to other air traffic and failing to maintain two-way communication with air traffic controllers, but the fine was eventually reduced to $1,500. Walters became an instant minor celebrity, appearing on Late Night with David Letterman and in ads for Timex watches. He never made it back into the air, though, and like many other daredevils was unable to capitalize much on his feat.

He later worked as a security guard and was a some-time Forestry Service volunteer when he committed suicide in 1993 in Angeles National Forest, California.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Larry never intended to reach such a lofty height. His calculations indicated he would stop at 40 foot or so above his yard and be the envy of the neighborhood kids. His 16,000 foot ascent got him an Honorable mention in the Darwin goes his 15 minutes of fame.


3:06 PM  

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