What’s the story behind Lawn Chair Larry Walters and his infamous balloon flight?
If you were a pilot in the early 1980s, you likely know the story of Larry Walters, aka “Lawn Chair Larry,” the man who tied over 40 weather balloons to a lawn chair and quickly gained ATC and FAA attention by ascending into controlled airspace over Los Angeles at 16,000 feet. Larry, a truck driver out of California, always had a dream to fly. He spent his childhood fantasizing about planes and, as soon as he was of age, enlisted in the military to jumpstart his career as a pilot. To his dismay, the military informed him that his eyesight was too poor to serve behind aircraft controls and, instead, he spent his days in service as a cook in Vietnam. As most pilots can attest, the itch to fly isn’t one that just goes away—not until it’s been properly scratched. Larry’s yearning was so strong that, according to him, if he had never accomplished flight, he would have certainly “ended up in the funny farm.”
Recalling a time as a boy when he saw weather balloons strung up at an Army-Navy surplus store, Larry devised a plan. At 11 a.m. on July 2, 1982, he would take flight from the backyard of his girlfriend’s home in San Pedro, California, by tying 42 8-foot helium-filled weather balloons, tiered into four layers, to a Sears-purchased aluminum lawn chair angled back at a 45-degree angle, using gallon jugs of water as ballast. Larry called his self-made aircraft “Inspiration I” and stocked it with sandwiches, cold beer, a CB radio, altimeter, camera and a pellet gun to shoot out balloons for controlled descent. Having learned to skydive as a precaution, he donned a parachute and climbed aboard his chair from a rooftop. The chair was tethered to his Jeep using three lines. Larry claimed in a later interview that his intention was to remain tethered at 100 feet for an hour and contact the FAA and a few airports prior to launch. By his calculations, once the lines were cut, he would lift up a few hundred feet, and the winds would slowly drift him east toward the Mojave Desert. The flight cost him approximately $4,000. He figured he would spend a couple of hours enjoying his snacks, sipping his beverages, and snapping a few photos before finally shooting out enough balloons to make a gentle, safe descent.
Larry wanted to fly and, boy, did Larry fly! Instead of lazily floating off the ground and beginning his drift east at a low altitude, his tethering lines prematurely snapped, and he quickly rocketed up to a whopping 16,000 feet. He was sighted by multiple commercial airline pilots around Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), who called the bizarre sighting into air traffic control.
“This is TWA 231, level at 16,000 feet. We have a man in a chair attached to balloons in our ten-o’clock position, range five miles.”
Larry didn’t need to look at his altimeter to know he went much higher than he had intended. He began to feel cold and dizzy from the thin air and feared if he shot out any of the balloons that the balance of his chair would become unstable, causing him to fall. He used his CB radio to call REACT, a citizens band radio monitoring organization. When asked what his difficulty was, Larry responded, “The difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorized balloon launch, and, uh, I know I’m in a federal airspace…” After about 45 minutes in the air, he finally found the courage to shoot out some of the balloons, starting with those in the outer ring, but accidentally dropped his gun in the process. He poured out ballast to control the descent from there.
As a student at Hollywood High School, Larry did a science project called “Hydrogen and Balloons.” He got a D on the project.
Instead of making a calm descent into the desert, “Inspiration I” ended its hour-and-a-half flight tangled up in power lines at 432 45th St. in Long Beach, resulting in a 20-minute electricity blackout in the area. Larry was arrested and the FAA, unable to revoke the pilot license of a man who didn’t even have one, instead slapped him with four charges and a $4,000 fine. The agency eventually conceded on one of the charges—as it turns out, a lawn chair does not, in fact, require an airworthiness certificate—and reduced the fine to $1,500.
Larry, now dubbed the “Lawn Chair Pilot,” became a bit of a celebrity, landing appearances on late-night talk shows and Timex watch ads. “This was the fulfillment of a 20-year dream!I achieved inner peace,” he said in one of his interviews. Sadly, the fulfillment he felt from his daring feat would eventually wane and, in 1993, Larry Walters took his own life in the Angeles National Forest. But his legacy did not die with him. His epic flight has served as inspiration for a number of books, movies and musicals, and inspires those who participate in an aviation sport known today as Cluster Ballooning.