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Larry Walters (1949 - 1993)

Pilots occasionally see and report some rather bizarre happenings of which some turn out to be true and others just illusions

Issue: 03-2020By Joseph Noronha

Pilots occasionally see and report some rather bizarre happenings of which some turn out to be true and others just illusions. But one of the strangest airborne reports was by the Captain of an airliner approaching Los Angeles International Airport on July 2, 1982. He radioed that he was passing a man in a chair at 16,000 feet holding a pistol in his hand. A sceptical controller duly acknowledged the report, obtained a radar fix and began tracking the peculiar object. When it finally came down safely to the Earth, the startled authorities discovered it was indeed a man sitting in an ordinary lawn chair who had reached that rarefied height purely with the help of a bank of helium-filled weather balloons. Meet Larry Walters, a 33-year-old Vietnam War veteran and a truck driver with no pilot or balloon training.

Lawrence Richard Walters was born on April 19, 1949, in Los Angeles, California. The idea of using weather balloons for flight first occurred to him at the age of 13, when he saw them hanging from the ceiling of a military store. He dreamt of becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force, but poor eyesight made that impossible. Instead, he became a truck driver, till the flying bug again bit him at the age of 33. “It’s now or never,” he thought and enlisted the help of his girlfriend Carol for the outlandish scheme. Pretending to be representatives of an advertising company, they managed to purchase dozens of surplus weather balloons, each eight feet in diameter and 33 cubic feet in volume. The mission site was the backyard of Carol’s San Pedro home where other friends helped attach the balloons to an aluminium lawn chair, which Larry christened “Inspiration” and then fill them.

At 11 o’clock on that fateful morning, Larry Walters sat strapped in his lawn chair. Over 40 helium-filled balloons in four tiers towered above him. The contraption was tethered to a jeep. He thought he would ascend to about 30 feet and survey the scene. If all went well, the tethers would be severed and he would float lazily out over Long Beach and further East towards the Mojave Desert. When he was ready to descend, he would shoot out the balloons one by one with a pellet gun. If he started descending too rapidly, he would arrest the sink rate by jettisoning some of the plastic water cans he carried as ballast. Or so he thought. He had with him a parachute, a camera, a Citizen’s Band radio, a bottle of beer and a few sandwiches. But when his friends set the device loose, the lawn chair did not float up as slowly as intended, but shot into the sky at the rate of about 800 feet per minute.

It reached the limit of the tethering rope and snapped it. It continued climbing uncontrollably and the hapless Larry had no idea what to do next. He finally crossed 16,000 feet, way past the 10,000-foot altitude above which it is essential to use artificial oxygen. As he began drifting into controlled airspace over Los Angeles, Larry became nervous and tried to warn air traffic control of his presence.

He feared that shooting out some balloons might unbalance his chair and pitch him right out. But he finally decided that there was no other way to return to the Earth and started shooting at the balloons one by one. However, when he put the pellet gun on his lap for a moment to read the altimeter, a sudden gust of wind tilted the chair and flung the gun out. Now he was well and truly stuck. However, gradually the helium started leaking out of the balloons and the chair began descending. Close to the ground, yet another mishap, as the device’s dangling cables snagged in an HT power line. Thankfully the plastic tethers protected Larry from electrocution. He came to rest a few feet from the ground from where he was eventually rescued and immediately arrested! The press dubbed him “Lawnchair Larry”. A reporter asked him why he had undertaken such a perilous feat and Larry shot back, “A guy has to do something, he can’t just sit around in his backyard all day.”

He was slapped with a $4,000 fine for various offences including operating “a civil aircraft for which there is no airworthiness certificate,” creating a collision danger to other aircraft and entering an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.” On appeal, the fine was reduced to $1,500.

After a brief spell of fame, Larry Walters quit his job as a truck driver to become a motivational speaker. But he struggled to make money. On October 6, 1993, rather unhappy with life, he hiked to his favourite spot in the forest and shot himself dead.