“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.”
It was July 2, 1982, and Delta and TWA airline pilots watched, with their jaws on the floor, as they began their descent into Los Angeles International Airport. Why were they in awe? Well, they thought they were witnessing a UFO with their own eyes. They radioed the control tower that there was an unidentified object.
They described what appeared to be a man sitting in a lawn chair – with a pistol in hand – cruising along at 16,000 feet. As it turned out, it was technically a UFO, just not the alien kind. It was 33-year-old Larry Walters, who happened to be fulfilling a childhood dream – a dream that ultimately claimed his life (but not in the way you’re thinking). Larry actually landed safely… it’s the aftermath of this flight that took a toll on him.
As Larry’s fiancée told a reporter, “When he went up into the clouds and heard engines of planes, and he couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see him, he went ‘oh my goodness.’” You could say that was the understatement of the year. But before we get to that part, here’s the backstory…
Larry Walters, a truck driver from California, was born in 1949 and always wanted to be a pilot in the United States Air Force. He spent his childhood fantasizing about airplanes. And as soon as he was old enough, in 1967, he enlisted in the military; he was ready to jumpstart his career as a pilot. But that’s when he received devastating news.
Larry was shocked and disappointed to hear that his eyesight was too poor to be able to serve behind aircraft controls in the military. Instead, he had to spend his days in service as a cook in Vietnam. Thus, due to his poor eyesight (something he had no control over), he would never fly an aircraft.
You can take the boy out of the dream, but you can’t take the dream out of the boy. Ask any pilot: The itch to fly doesn’t just go away. That is, until it’s been properly scratched. After his time in Vietnam, Larry became a truck driver and lived a quiet life in San Pedro… until he saw an opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of flying.
Larry’s need to fly was so strong that he once said if he never accomplished a flight, he would certainly “end up in the funny farm.” He needed to find a way to fly, even if it wasn’t going to be in the conventional way. And so, with the help of his then-fiancée, Carol van Deusen, he attached 42 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair – a chair he nicknamed “Inspiration I.”
He bought his favorite lawn chair at Sears-Roebuck, and it was, he said, “exceptionally comfortable.” He sat on it as he watched jets and passenger planes fly above him on warm summer evenings.
“He is the guy you barely know down the block, washing his car on a dull Sunday afternoon,” John Keasler of Miami News wrote on July 8, 1982. He’s the “guy you sit next to on the bus. All the frustrateds, all the regimented, all the conformists.” The 33-year-old North Hollywood resident was just an average blue-collar, hard-working American, like anyone else in the country.
He was a truck driver for a TV commercial production company, who enjoyed spending his spare time with his fiancé. Larry claimed that ever since he was 13 years old, in the early 1960s, he had dreamed of flying into the clear blue in a balloon. “It was just something that hit him when he was 13, and he’s had a fascination with that for all these years,” Carol said.
In March of 1982, he started buying the equipment and supplies he needed to accomplish his goal. His list of things included 42 weather balloons, helium tanks, a parachute, water jugs, an altimeter, a CB radio, and a BB gun (you’ll see why). He said he spent between $3,000 and $4,000 at the local Army-Navy surplus store.
He spent days upon days just planning and preparing his lawn chair for the journey, but he apparently never researched thoroughly just how much helium would be required to lift him a little over the housetops. On July 1, Larry inflated the balloons with helium and arranged them with nylon cables in six tiers, rising to almost 180 feet.
His plan was to just drift lazily at the height of about 30 feet above the backyard, so he would be able to enjoy a few hours floating over the Mojave Desert before popping a few balloons and drifting back down. And so, on July 2, 1982, he strapped on his parachute, packed his lawnchair’s pockets with sandwiches, soda, and all the rest. He was loaded and ready for the flight of his lifetime.
Fastened by a guy wire to his jeep, he told Carol and his friends to release the guy wire. Lawnchair Larry was about to stimulate America’s imagination in a way that future Pixar films (like Up) and even magicians (like David Blaine) would emulate. But his balloon flight went wrong almost immediately…
Most American pilots in the early ‘80s knew of Lawnchair Larry. He had ascended into controlled airspace over Los Angeles, quickly gaining the attention of Air Traffic Control and Federal Aviation Administration. Sure, Larry may have wanted to just cruise above the housetops, but that’s not what ended up happening. Nothing goes as planned right?
Before he even reached controlled airspace, Larry’s ascension was flawed. The wire broke prematurely, and the 42 balloons (with 33-cubic feet of helium in each one) took Larry a lot higher than the rooftops. Instead, he rocketed up as if he was being fired from a slingshot. And he kept going upward until his altimeter read that he was over three miles from the ground.
Larry ended up flying much higher than he planned. Reaching 16,000 feet, he was in the controlled airspace above the Los Angeles International Airport. It only makes sense that Larry got nervous, and so he used his radio to call into air traffic control to warn them of his presence. He was then spotted by at least two commercial pilots, and they too alerted air traffic controllers and the FAA.
Despite his glasses being yanked off of his face by the hazardous ascent, he managed to radio Carol. It was all recorded…
Carol: “You’re going to be directly over us, so, in a few, about a minute or two. So look down and see if you can see us. Over.”
Larry: “Ok, I’ll be looking for ‘ya.”
Larry: “Carol, I’m, I’m almost 6,000 feet over. I can’t see much of anything (laugh) except for a lot of houses. Over.”
Larry was getting dangerously high, but he disregarded Carol’s pleas to return to earth. Although he was now in dangerous territory, he was worried that if he popped too many balloons, he would lose balance and fall out of the chair.
So, he white-knuckled it for almost an hour. After having been up there for 45 minutes, he mustered up the courage to shoot some of the balloons. He radioed his friends to let them know he was okay, despite an air temperature of about 5˚F. Then, the already risky situation grew even worse.
It dawned on Larry, as his hands and feet were going numb from the cold temperature, that he wasn’t drifting east toward the Mojave Desert, but rather west toward the Pacific Ocean. He called Mayday on his radio to the Crest-REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communication Team) in California.
That radio call was also picked up by a man named Doug Dixon, a member of Orange County Citizens band radio club. “This guy broke into our channel with a mayday,” Dixon explained. “He said he had shot up like an elevator to 16,000 feet and was getting numb. He sounded worried, but he wasn’t panicked.” The conversation between Larry and REACT was recorded…
REACT: “What information do you wish me to tell them at this time as to your location and your difficulty?”
Larry: “Uh, the difficulty is, uh, this was an unauthorized 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.”
REACT: “What color is the balloon?”
Larry: “The balloons are beige in color. I’m in a bright blue sky, which would be very highly visible. Over.”
REACT: “Balloon size?”
Larry: “Size approximately, uh, seven feet in diameter each. And I probably have about 35 left. Over.”
REACT: “You’re saying you have a cluster of 35 balloons?”
Larry: “These are 35 weather balloons. Not one single balloon, sir. It is 35 weather balloons.”
REACT: “Roger, stand by this frequency.”
Larry was firing his BB gun at the balloons. But nothing was happening. His concern turned to panic. He shot out seven more balloons until he accidentally fumbled with the gun and dropped it somewhere over Orange County.
Thankfully, though, before he dropped the gun, he shot out enough balloons to start a fast descent. That descent was, of course, amplified due to his 30 water-filled gallon jugs. Larry was descending, and he was descending quickly. Luckily, after a total of 90 minutes in the sky, he reached the ground safely.
He was coming down, but, on the way, the balloons became tangled on the power lines in Long Beach, causing a 20-minute power outage in the area. The police received a frantic 911 call from Larry’s ground crew. Seeing that Larry was approaching a little too fast, the police ordered the power company to kill the electricity in the area, and so blocks of homes and businesses were left with no power.
After his 21-mile flight, and as soon as he came back to earth, he was swarmed by neighbors and children, who helped him get out of his chair. “By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream,” he told the crowd around him. “But I wouldn’t do it again for anything.”
Larry might have been happy to be alive as he landed on the ground in one piece, but the celebration was short-lived. He was immediately arrested and briefly held by LAPD. As he was placed in the squad car, in handcuffs, a reporter on the scene asked him why he did it. Larry casually replied, “A man can’t just sit around.”
He was then slapped with a $4,000 fine for violating FAA regulations. He challenged the charges, saying, “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.” The court settled for a $1,500 fine, which Larry duly paid.
After serving two days in lockup, he told the LA Times, “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm.” He also mentioned that maybe he could become a spokesman for, you know, Sear-Roebuck’s lawnchairs. “I cannot say I was afraid or anything,” Larry recalled.
There were two regrets that Larry had, though: first, he gave away his beloved lawn chair to the neighborhood children, and second, because he had been so amazed by the view, he hadn’t taken one photograph. He also said his mother thought he should be institutionalized, “and probably still does… but she’s proud of me.”
By that point, Larry had become something of a local celebrity and earned another nickname in the process: Lawn chair Pilot. That’s when he earned the nickname Lawnchair Larry. He would go on to tell reporters that it “was something I had to do. I had this dream for 20 years.”
Larry was invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as well as Late Night with David Letterman, and he made an appearance on a Timex watch ad. But, as you know, becoming even a minor celebrity means you get both positive and negative publicity. In a less than flattering acknowledgment, Larry was granted an honorable mention from the 1982 Darwin Awards and the first place award in The Bonehead Club of Dallas.
He said that he never thought fulfilling his goal in life would “create such a stir and make people laugh.” Larry tried to capitalize on his new fame. He even hired an agent but fired him shortly after that, claiming it was just “too much, too soon.” In 1983, he quit his job as a truck driver to make a move into motivational speaking.
Fame and fortune were not something Larry was used to. He was, after all, a simple man who wanted to keep a simple lifestyle. He had been living in the same low-rent North Hollywood apartment since 1971.
The Smithsonian Institution asked Larry to donate the infamous lawn chair to the National Air & Space Museum, but he ashamedly admitted to having given it away. He also autographed pieces of the deflated balloons and gave those away, too.
In 1991, Larry appeared in a Timex ad. According to Timex spokesman Ron Sok, the company felt that Larry was perfect for their campaign of “ordinary individuals conquering enormous obstacles.” He earned $1,000 from that ad. But his new career in motivational speaking never lifted off the ground. There were fewer and fewer speaking gigs, and he found himself alone and feeling lost.
He never ended up marrying Carol, yet they remained good friends. He spent a lot of his time hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains. He also volunteered for the US Forest Service. “I love the peace and quiet,” he stated in 1988. “Nature and I get along real well.” It was in nature that Larry decided to end his life…
Unfortunately, Larry was battling personal demons, which could have been a result of how his balloon flight disrupted his modest life. Just before Thanksgiving of 1993, Larry’s mother, Hazel Dunham, revealed that on October 6, her son had hiked to a remote spot in LA’s National Forest and shot himself in the heart.
Larry was just 44 years old. He left no suicide note. No one was really sure of his motives. “It was his favorite place,” Dunham said of the forests where he ended his life. “He loved those mountains.”
But Larry’s legacy lived on, and many have followed in his footsteps. His legendary balloon flight gave rise to the current extreme sport of cluster ballooning.
Cluster ballooning involves participants strapping themselves in a harness and being attached to rubber helium-filled balloons. Others who were inspired by Larry made similar flights, including Mike Howard and Steve Davis – two men who hold the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude reached through cluster ballooning.
Then, there was a man named Jonathan Trappe. Like Larry, Trappe flew 50 miles, but he did it in his office chair. After he landed safely, he returned the chair to his workplace. Larry’s flight inspired many books, movies, and musicals, too.
And here’s a fun fact: When Larry was a high school student, he did a science project called “Hydrogen and Balloons.” He got a D.
After this story, seeing David Blaine do the same might give you a little more perspective….