The 1997 DARWIN AWARD Winner . . .
Lawn Chair Larry
The real story . . . re-constructed from UPI, AP and Darwin Award accounts . . .
Look, up in the sky. Is it a bird, a plane, the space shuttle? No, it's Larry Walters of North Hollywood at 16,000 feet in his lawn chair. "I know it sounds strange but it's true," said a Long Beach police officer. "The guy just filled up some balloons with helium, strapped on a parachute, grabbed a BB gun and took off."
Walters, 33, a truck driver for a company that produces TV commercials, spent nearly two hours in the air as he flew in an aluminum lawn chair (a $109 aluminum Sears model, just in case you needed to know) suspended from a 50-foot cable attached to helium-filled balloons. The flight started from a friend's house in San Pedro and ended when Larry crashed landed in Long Beach.
Larry's boyhood dream was to fly. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, poor eyesight disqualified him. When he was finally discharged, he had to satisfy himself with watching jets fly over his backyard until he took matters into his own hands. He used 42 six foot diameter weather balloons that he purchased from a local army surplus store, tied them to the chair and pumped them full of helium. 6 friends un-tethered the craft (which he had fondly dubbed "Inspiration I") from the jeep he used to hold it on the ground and Larry was airborne.
He had outfitted himself with a large bottle of soda, some snacks, a parachute and a portable CB radio to alert air traffic to his presence. He also took a camera but later admitted, "I was so amazed by the view I didn't even take one picture."
Walters, with no pilot or balloon training, soared up to 16,000 feet (that's right, 3 miles !!!) startling at least two airline pilots who happened across the path of his weird flying contraption as he entered into the airspace (and onto the radar screens ) of LAX. Someone radioed the Federal Aviation Administration.
A regional safety inspector, Neal Savoy, said the flying lawn chair was spotted by incredulous Trans World Airlines and Delta Airlines jetliner pilots at 16,000 feet above sea level.
"We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charges will be filed," Mr. Savoy said. "If this character had a pilot's license, we'd suspend that, but he doesn't."
Larry initially claimed that he had only intended to rise to about 100 feet, but everything didn't go as planned when the tethers broke. Minutes later, he was frantically calling for help over his citizens band radio.
"This guy broke into our channel with a mayday," said Doug Dixon, a member of an Orange County citizens band radio club. "He said he'd up shot into the LA sky like he'd been launched from a cannon and was now floating around so high up that he was getting numb from the cold. The guy sounded like he was kinda' losin' it . . . real scared. That's when he said he was gonna start blasting away at those big balloons. Then we lost contact and thought he was a goner"
Larry really had "lost his grip", his freezing fingers caused him to accidentally drop both the pistol and radio overboard. The chair drifted downward, loosely controlled as he jettisoned the gallon jugs of water attached to the sides of the chair as ballast. As he neared the ground he spotted power lines. "That's when I got really excited. I thought I was going to get toasted so I tossed as much as I could spare off of the Inspiration" he said. "Those wires can really fry you." But he didn't get fried, the balloons fortunately draped themselves across the wires and left Larry dangling comfortably in his chair about 5 feet from the ground. He finished what was left of his soda and jumped back to earth. The crash landing knocked out power in the Long Beach area for 20 minutes.
Larry stated, "By the grace of God, I have fulfilled my dream, and if I hadn't done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm. But I wouldn't do this again for anything. Now I'm staying on the ground. I've proved to myself that the helium thing works." Critiquing the equipment he chose for the voyage including the BB gun, parachute, one-gallon water jugs for ballast, life vest and CB radio, Larry commented, "The best piece of equipment was the chair, it was a "Sears Best", just excellent, it was extremely strong and really comfortable."
He eventually admitted that his original plan was to drift out over the Mojave Desert site of Sunday's scheduled space shuttle Columbia landing. "I hung out over LA as long as I could, but I was afraid I was getting blown out to sea, the winds just didn't cooperate. I wasn't trying to upstage the space shuttle," Larry explained. "I would have landed before I got in the way of that spaceship. I just wanted to lay back on that chair and enjoy it all, but then I knew I had to do something really radical when my fingers and toes started getting numb." Police said they probably would not file charges against Walters. But the Federal Aviation Administration was investigating, mainly because of the scare he gave the airline pilots who came across him at 16,000 feet.
The stunt ultimately earned Walters the Darwin Award, the top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas, the altitude record for gas-filled clustered balloons (which could not be officially recorded because he was unlicensed and unsanctioned), international admiration and the threat of fines in excess of $10,000 (later reduced to $1,500) from the FAA.
"So much for experimental design aircraft," said Larry, "If the friggin' FAA was there when the Wright Brothers were testing their plane, then they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk." The F.A.A. cited him for four violations of the Federal Aviation Act, 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 appeared on "The Tonight Show" in Burbank and was flown to New York to be on "Late Night With David Letterman," which he later described as "the most fun I've ever had." He later told the L.A. Times, "I didn't think that by fulfilling my goal in life - my dream - that would create such a stir, and make people laugh so hard."
Larry abandoned his truck-driving job and went on the lecture circuit, remaining sporadically in demand at motivational seminars. But he said he never made much money from his innovative flight and was glad to keep his simple lifestyle.
He gave his "aircraft" - the aluminum lawn chair - to some of the admiring Long Beach neighborhood kids after he landed, later regretting it.
In recent years, Walters hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service. "I love the peace and quiet," he told The Times. "Nature and I get along real well."
Regrettably, "Lawnchair" Larry Walters died Oct. 6, 1993. He committed suicide at the age of 44, shooting himself in the heart in a remote spot in Angeles National Forest.
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