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Larry Walters

From Academic Kids

Larry Walters, nicknamed Lawnchair Larry, (b. April 19, 1949, d. October 6, 1993) was one of the few Darwin Award contenders that lived to tell the tale, nominated after he had used helium-filled balloons to make his lawnchair (dubbed "Inspiration I") fly on July 2 1982. Always having dreamt of flying but unable to become a pilot in the United States Air Force due to bad eyesight, Walters first made his decision to fly while sitting in his lawnchair in his backyard in Los Angeles, watching jets fly overhead; his original plan was to attach a couple of helium-filled weather balloons to his lawnchair, then cut the anchor and float above his backyard at a height of about 30 feet for a few hours, finally using a pellet gun to pop the balloons one after another to float gently to the ground again.

He went on to buy 45, 4-foot-diameter weather balloons in an army-navy surplus store, attaching them to his lawnchair and then filling them with helium after donning a parachute and strapping himself to the chair with a pellet gun, a CB radio, some sandwiches, soft drinks and a camera; however, things did not work out as he had planned. When his friends cut the cord that had tied his lawnchair to his jeep, Walters' lawnchair quickly rose to a height of about 16,000 feet (4876 m); fearing that he might get himself into even deeper trouble, he did not dare shoot any balloons, instead drifting over Los Angeles and crossing the primary approach corridor of Los Angeles International Airport.

After spending about two hours in the sky, though, he came to the conclusion that he would have to shoot a few balloons after all; doing so caused him to descend slowly again, until the balloon's dangling cables got caught in a power line, causing a black out in a Long Beach neighbourhood for 20 minutes but also allowing Walters to climb down to the ground again.

He was immediately arrested by waiting members of the LAPD; when asked why he had done it by a reporter, Walters replied "a man can't just sit around." He was later fined 4,000 USD by the Federal Aviation Administration for 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.". Walters appealed, and the fine was reduced to 1,500 USD.

Walters also received the top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas for his adventure, as well as invitations to The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman and an honourable mention in 1982's Darwin Awards; the lawnchair used in his flight was given to admiring neighbourhood children, although he later admitted he regretted doing so.

He was in brief demand as a motivational speaker after his flight and quit his job as a truck driver, but never was able to make much money from his fame; later on in his life, Walters hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and did volunteer work for the United States Forest Service before committing suicide by shooting himself in the heart in Angeles National Forest on October 6 1993.

The Truth

Many exaggerated stories have circulated around the web regarding Larry Walters (AKA: Lawnchair Larry and the Lawn Chair Pilot). Even so, from interviews with his friends and family, and by analysing a recording of his CB radio transmissions, the following facts have been confirmed.

  • Larry was launched from his girlfriend's backyard in San Pedro, CA with the assistance of another friend.
  • Larry dropped his glasses during lift-off.
  • Larry did not pass near LAX, but rather Long Beach airport, where TWA and Delta airlines pilots sighted him and reported him to the tower.
  • Larry came down in a residential area north-east of Long Beach airport.
  • Larry gave the lawn chair away to a neighbourhood kid. Today that same person still has the chair (with ballast water jugs and tethers still attached).
  • Larry did not drop his gun during lift-off.
  • Larry did float over Long Beach harbour but did not float out to sea.
  • Larry was not rescued by a helicopter, but rather came down on his own will while possibly trying to land in an open field.
  • Larry paid $1,500 after battling the FAA. Of 4 total charges, some were dropped (it was decided that his lawn chair did not need an airworthiness certificate) and Larry admitted to one other (not establishing and maintaining two-way contact with the airport control tower). According to the FAA, "The flight was potentially unsafe, but Walters had not intended to endanger anyone."

Larry Walters Quotes

  • "A man can't just sit around." (Immediately after his flight when asked by a reporter why he did it)
  • "If the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk."
  • "It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn't done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm. I didn't think that by fulfilling my goal in life — my dream — that I would create such a stir and make people laugh."
  • Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy is reported to have said "We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot's license, we'd suspend that. But he doesn't."
  • Larry was also in contact with REACT, a CB monitoring organisation, who recorded their conversation:
REACT: What information do you wish me to tell them [LAX] at this time as to your location and your difficulty?
Larry: Ah, the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorised balloon launch, and, uh, I know I'm in a federal airspace, and, uh, I'm sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I'm okay.

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