Tag Archives: Surplus store

My Heroes (1): Larry Walters, the Lawnchair Pilot

A man can’t just sit around

Okay. So Tolstoy, with his airy-fairy notions of “being”* might not have approved, but these were the words of my hero Larry Walters in June 1982.

The occasion was his arrest, in Long Beach, California, for operating an unlicensed aircraft. The aircraft in question was a homemade one, comprising 40 weather balloons, a stout rope and a garden chair; the pilot a Vietnam veteran and one-time wannabe pilot who just got tired of “sitting around”.

Walters’ plan was to float up to a height of about 30 feet, peacefully drift over houses and gardens for a few hours, then let himself down gently in a field. To this end he bought the helium-filled balloons from an army surplus store, rigged up his impromptu flying machine and made sure to pack his camera, some sandwiches and a BB gun to pop the balloons one by one on his descent.

In the event, the balloons proved to be much stronger than he had predicted: instead of floating, the contraption shot up precipitately to about 16,000 feet, and Walters lost his glasses and his gun in the process. Fortunately he had also brought a two-way radio and was able to alert the aviation authorities, who failed to see the funny side but at least ensured there were no collisions with more conventional aircraft. He eventually came down in some power lines, stumbled out of his chair and was promptly arrested and fined.

It’s easy to focus on the amusing parts of this story, and hilarious they are too. However, on a deeper level Walters’ exploits deserve respect, in my opinion. Here was an ordinary man, living a humdrum life, who one day took the decision to challenge himself. He made a few crazy plans, broke a few rules, and ended up doing something amazing, outlandish, unprecedented. Something that only Icarus and arguably a select few others have ever come close to achieving. And Icarus didn’t exist.

Icarus also got caught upon landing. But not by the LA police department.

Tragically, Larry Walters never recovered from the excitement of his lawnchair flight, and took his own life a decade later. But I like to think he died a richer, more deeply fulfilled person than if he had simply bowed to convention and continued to “be”.

Erik

Here’s the fullest account of Walters’s story: http://www.check-six.com/Crash_Sites/Walters-BalloonRide.htm

And here’s another, with photos: http://www.markbarry.com/lawnchairman.html

* Sorreh, Lev. Sorreh, Kira. I didn’t really mean that. Just liked the words “airy-fairy” 🙂

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