A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2007

Lawn Chairs Can Fly

If it weren’t for the Wright brothers, make no mistake, we would still be flying. These two fellows just happened to be doing the right thing at the right time. They got off the ground in controlled flight before anyone else did. There were others working on the same project in different parts of the world, but the Wrights just did it first. That doesn’t mean we take any credit away from them. It was a great tribute to American ingenuity at the time, and seems a fitting beginning to one of the greatest inventions in history.  The airplane.

Although hot air and helium filled balloons have been around a long time, the invention of the flying lawn chair is relatively recent. And rare. It made sense to Larry Walters, enough sense that in 1982, in Los Angeles, he perfected his craft, and went flying in it.  What a story! Often thought to be an urban legend, the facts are pretty clear, supported by all the media coverage and talk shows of the day.

Larry was 33 at the time, and for years had the dream of drifting in a balloon above the earth enjoying the view. His craft was pretty simple, some 42 helium-filled weather balloons, each about six feet in diameter, tied together in three clusters stacked on top of each other.  The whole bunch was then tethered to a sturdy lawn chair, to which Larry fastened himself for the ride.  He wasn’t completely nuts though, as some forethought to his personal safety went into the project. He was equipped with a CB radio, wore a parachute, a lifejacket, had about 30 gallons of water in jugs attached for ballast, and to control his altitude, he had a BB gun with which to shoot out the balloons one at a time.

He was his own test pilot for the aircraft.  He thought about and planned for the flight for almost twenty years. He studied weather trends, upper winds, knew the characteristics of the jet stream, and had a pretty good knowledge of the airspace he hoped to transit, along with the FAA regulations. He knew the qualities of helium and the principles of lighter-than-air vehicles. About the only thing he wasn’t prepared for was the super performance of his balloons when the tether was cut. Climbing at over 1000 fpm, it wasn’t long before he found himself level at 16,000 feet over Los Angeles in the cold, thin air, crossing the flight paths to the L.A. and Long Beach airports in the process. The crew of a TWA airliner was pretty shocked to see him out their window. And of course the FAA wasn’t too amused when they needed to start diverting aircraft.

The wind pushed the balloons on a generally north-easterly heading, away from the ocean. Larry shot out some of the balloons in order to start his descent before accidentally losing his BB gun overboard.  He finally descended into a neighbourhood in Long Beach. The balloons tangled up in some power lines, cutting electricity to the area, but Larry was uninjured, and survived to pay the fines and face the music.  The FAA charged him with everything they could, including entering a control zone without establishing contact, etc. etc. They couldn’t revoke his pilots licence because he didn’t have one.

Anyway, it was a dream come true for Larry Walters. A dream he said he’d never do again.  No doubt!  He became an instant celebrity, appeared on talk shows, was interviewed by many dozens of newspapers and radio stations. For a while, he was the worlds biggest hero or the dumbest loser, depending on who you talked to. He made people laugh, some were shocked, most just shook their heads. In my opinion, he has to go down in aviation history on some level. Possibly alongside Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, and all the rest.

There is a really entertaining website which contains several pictures and documented stories of this guy.  You’ll be amazed with the read. If you have time, and want the details of this interesting tale, go to www.markbarry.com. Mark has done more research into this than anyone else, and will soon publish a book about Larry Walters, his life and his incredible achievement with the flying lawn chair. Look for “FLIGHT OF THE INSPIRATION” this fall (2007). Details will be posted on his web site.

Apparently, this is not the end of the story. Copy-cat balloonists are now showing up in the skies.  In early July, 2007, another fellow in a similar contraption, lifted off from Bend, Oregon bound for anywhere in Idaho. His flight was partially successful in that he wasn’t killed or lost, but he didn’t make it to Idaho. He landed his lawn chair in a field, about 250 miles from home. By the time you read this, it’s anybody’s guess as to how many “balloonists” will have re-created Larry’s feat. 

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