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Episode 22 - Lawn Chair Larry

Larry Walters was born in Los Angeles, California on April 1949. When he was around 8 years old, his parents took him Disneyland. While walking around the park, he saw a lady holding what he said seemed like a zillion Mickey Mouse balloons and the idea popped into little Larry’s head that if you could get enough balloons, they could lift you off the ground. A few years later when Larry was 13, he was in an Army-Navy surplus store and saw a weather balloon and figured that if he wanted to float using balloons, weather balloons were the way to go.

Around this time, Larry began to experiment with hydrogen gas and making his own hydrogen generators that he would use to inflate little balloons. He would release the balloons with little notes attached. While attending Hollywood High School, Larry submitted a science fair project titled ‘Hydrogen and Balloons’ and ended up getting a D on it.

After graduating high school, Larry joined the Air Force in 1967 with the hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately for Larry, his bad eyesight kept him from becoming a pilot. After serving in the Vietnam War, Larry returned to LA and became a commercial truck driver, but he would still dream about floating up into the sky using balloons. Larry bought a waffle-iron webbing lawn chair with tubular aluminum armrests for $109 from Sears and would sit in it in the evenings in his backyard while drinking beer and watching commercial planes fly by.

When Larry met his girlfriend Carol in 1972, he told her all about his balloon flying dream and she blew it off as ridiculous. But Larry kept at it and would even draw different balloon flying contraptions on placemats when they would go eat at restaurants, so ten years later in 1982, Carol just said “Well it’s best you do it and get it out of your system.” With Carol’s stamp of approval, Larry made plans to attach enough weather balloons to his Sears lawn chair and float above Los Angeles. Carol wanted Larry to wear a parachute during his balloon adventure so Larry drove up to the Elsinore Flight School in Perris, California to go skydiving so he could learn how to use a parachute. Larry only did one jump and then bought his own parachute for nine hundred dollars.

Larry then started buying the rest of the supplies that he figured he would need for his balloon excursion. Larry and Carol bought 42 weather balloons, several tanks of helium, a two-way radio, an altimeter, a hand compass, a flashlight with extra batteries, a medical kit, a pocketknife, eight plastic gallon jugs of water that would be placed on the sides of the chair to act as a ballast, a package of beef jerky, a road map of California, a camera, two liters of Coca-Cola, and a B.B. gun so he could pop the balloons when he was ready to come down.

Larry spent his days researching and planning his trip. Larry figured that with the amount of balloons and helium he had, he would get to about 100 feet in the air while being tethered to his friend’s 1962 Chevrolet Bonneville and once he got his bearings, would release the tether and he would fly out over the Mojave Desert where he would then pop balloons and drift down to a soft landing. The night before the launch, Larry, Carol and their friend started inflating the balloons in Carol’s backyard. Around midnight, a couple of cops peaked over Carol’s fence and asked what they were doing. Larry told them they were going to be using the balloons for a commercial in the morning and the cops believed him and left. The next morning, they had all the balloons blown up in several tiers and the whole thing was about 150 feet high. Larry grabbed a few more supplies for his trip, a sandwich and a couple of beers and he was ready to get into his balloon chair. Before taking off, his friend decided that Larry should wear a life jacket just in case there was a shift in the wind and Larry ended up being blown into the ocean instead of the desert, so Larry had to wait an extra 45 minutes. When his friend arrived back with the life jacket, Larry dubbed his balloon chair the Inspiration I, and sat down in it. By the way, Larry wasn’t strapped in at all. He figured because the lawn chair was tilted back about 10 degrees, he shouldn’t have any problems not falling out.

With Larry in his chair, Carol and their friend released the balloons. Larry started rocketing up to the air about 800 feet per minute and snapped the tether connecting the chair and his friend’s car. When the tether broke, the chair pitched forward and Larry’s glasses flew off along with some of the equipment he had hanging off the chair. This was all freaking out Carol so she got on the two-way radio and said “Larry, come down. You’ve got to come down if you can’t see. Come down!” Larry calmly tells her that he’s okay, he has a backup pair of glasses, and he’s just going through a dense layer of fog.

Carol says “Oh God! Keep talking, Larry. We’ve got airplanes. They can’t see you. You’re heading for the ocean. You’re going to have to come down!” Larry keeps flying higher and higher so Carol says “Larry, everybody down here says to cut ‘em and get down now. Cut your balloons and come down now. Come down please!”

Larry just ignored Carol, this was his lifelong dream and he was going to soak it in for as long as possible. Larry makes it up to 2,500 feet and he was loving the view. At one point, Larry even saw a little private plane below him. Larry kept rising and before he knew it, he was at 15,000 feet. The air was starting to thin and it was getting harder for Larry to breathe so he figured it was finally time to come down. Larry figured he needed to pop around seven balloons so that he could still get over the Angeles National Forest, past Mt. Wilson, and into the Mojave Desert. Larry grabbed his bb gun and started to shoot the balloons. He put the gun in his lap so he could check his altimeter when a sudden gust of wind blew Larry sideways making his chair tilt forward and the bb gun fell out of his lap down into Los Angeles. Larry had packed backups for almost everything but the bb gun.

Larry hadn’t shot enough balloons before he lost his gun and continued to gain elevation. He was now at 16,500 feet and the temperature was between 5 and 10 degrees and his toes began to go numb. A pilot of a commercial plane that was inbound for LAX spotted Larry and reported a man in a lawn chair to the air traffic control tower. The air traffic control tower was able to find Larry using radar and began to track him. This also about the time that Larry realized he was indeed heading for the Pacific Ocean and not the Mojave Desert. Luckily, helium began to leak from the balloons and he made it to 13,000 feet where he was able to use his radio to cry Mayday to the Crest-REACT or Radio Emergency Associated Communication Team in Corona, California.

Larry started talking to the REACT team member named Doug Dixon. Doug asked Larry what airport did he take off from so Larry says “My point of departure was 1633 West Seventh Street, San Pedro” which was Carol’s address. Doug says “Say again the name of the airport. Could you please repeat?” So Larry says “The difficulty is, this is an unauthorized balloon launch. I know I am interfering with federal airspace, and, uh, I’m sure the ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I’m okay.”

Doug “What color is the balloon?”

Larry “The balloons are beige in color. I’m in a bright blue sky which would be very highly visible. Over.”

Doug “Size?”

Larry “Approximately seven feet in diameter each. And I probably have thirty-five left. Over.”

Doug “Did you say you have a cluster of thirty-five balloons?”

Larry “These are 35 weather balloons. Not one single balloon, sir. It is 35 weather balloons.”

Doug “Roger, stand by this frequency”

Larry “Just tell Carol that I love her, and I’m doing fine. Please do. Over.”

At this time, Larry had been floating for around an hour and a half, but he was starting to come down over a neighborhood in Long Beach. The police had received a 911 call by this time from Carol and could see Larry starting to descend very quickly so they had the power company kill the electricity in the area which left several blocks of homes and businesses with no power in the middle of a hot July day. Larry continues to descend until the balloons got caught up in high voltage power lines. His chair ended up scraping along a guys roof which scared the owner that was reading the morning newspaper while sitting in a lounge chair near his pool. Larry’s chair came off the roof, but Larry was then stuck only about 5 feet off the ground above this guys yard. The owner was an airline pilot on his day off and Larry later reminisced that after staring at Larry for about 15 seconds he got out of his chair and asked “Hey, do you need any help?” Larry had floated a total of 21 miles away from Carol’s house.

The owner got a step ladder out for Larry and Larry hopped out of his lawn chair and was quickly greeted by a group of LAPD along with a growing crowd. The LAPD placed him in a squad car where he waited while they ran his driver’s license. The cop gave Larry back his license and said ‘There’s nothing. You haven’t done anything. You’re free, but you’ll be hearing from the F.A.A.” So Larry got out of the squad car to kids asking him to autograph balloons. He even gave the chair to one of the local kids and got a big kiss from Carol who had shown up.

A reporter asked Larry why he’d pulled such a dumb stunt, to which Larry replied “A man can’t just sit around.” Larry also told the Associated Press “My mother thought I should be institutionalized, and probably still does, but she’s proud of me.”

The F.A.A. knew they needed to charge Larry with something, but they weren’t sure what. Regional Safety Inspector Neal Savoy said “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, a charge will be filed… If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.” On December 18, 5 months later, the FAA brought four charges and $4,000 in fines against Larry including operating a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate and operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.

Larry challenged the charges saying that “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.” The FAA ended up settling with Larry for $1,500, which Larry paid.

The Smithsonian Institute asked Larry to donate his lawn chair to the National Air and Space Museum, but he had to regretfully inform them that he had given it to some random kid. For the next few months after his flight, Larry was a national star. He was interviewed by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and he was a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Larry quit his truck driving job and went on the lecture circuit as a motivational speaker. Unfortunately for Larry, people stopped caring about his balloon flight and his speaking engagements became fewer and fewer. Carol and Larry broke up, though they remained good friends. Larry had almost no bills, so he spent most of his time hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains and working as a volunteer ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

In 1991, nine years after his flight, Timex hired Larry to be the face of their new campaign the watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Larry only earned $1,000 from that ad, but he said that with that check he finally broke even financially from his balloon experience.

On October 6, 1993 Larry Walters hiked up into the Angeles National Forest and committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. Search and rescue found him inside a tent and sleeping bag. Everything was very neat with his shoes neatly placed outside and the camp trash was even hanging in a tree so the bears and raccoons couldn’t get to it. Larry didn’t leave a suicide note, but his family believes that he had been battling depression for quite some time. He had accomplished his lifelong dream and there was nothing else to aspire to. He was only 44 years old.

In 2002, the kid that Larry had given his chair to sent an email to a pilot named Mark Barry, who had documented Larry’s story and had a website dedicated to it. The kid named Jerry, who was now grown up, explained that he still had the chair and it was sitting in his garage with some of the original tethers and water jugs still attached. Jerry ended up loaning the chair to the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Between 2007 and 2008, Kent Couch, a 47 year old gas station owner from Bend, Oregon, had two balloon-lawn chair flights with the first carrying him 193 miles and the second taking him 240 miles which landed him in Cambridge, Idaho. His second flight took 9 hours and 12 minutes and he used 105 large helium balloons.

On January 13, 2008, a Brazilian Roman Catholic Priest and human-rights activist named Adelir Antonio Carli took off from Ampere, Brazil using 600 helium filled party balloons, reached an altitude of 17,400 feet and landed safely in Argentina. He attempted a second flight in April of 2008 using 1,000 balloons, but he was caught in a storm and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean where his body was found three months later. There’s been a few more people that have taken up the hobby of cluster ballooning.

Sources:

“The Strange, Sad Odyssey of ‘Lawn Chair Larry’” by Dale M. Brumfield

“The Man In The Flying Lawn Chair” by George Plimpton

“July 2, 1982: Up, Up, and Away With 42 Balloons” by Tony Long

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