Urban myths and stories have been floating around email systems and the Internet for years. Famous stories such as the JATO car crash1 regularly make us laugh, but we all know that they are not true... or do we?
The Darwin Awards show that people can be ridiculously stupid some times, in fact the hero of this tale almost earned himself a Darwin in the process. Step forward one Lawrence Richard Walters or, as he became better known, 'Lawn Chair' Larry.
Lawrence Richard Walters was born 19 April, 1949. Larry led an uneventful normal life as a truck driver in southern California until the fateful day 2 July, 1982. On that day, Larry turned himself into a legend. Ever since he was a boy Larry had dreamed of flying, but the US Air Force had turned him down from becoming a pilot due to his bad eyesight. Years before, while still a young teenager, he'd seen weather balloons rising up into the clear blue skies and now he decided to go for it himself. Larry planned to purchase some weather balloons and tie them on to one of his patio chairs2 and sail to the Mojave desert 300 miles away.
Higher and Higher Baby
So with the plan devised, Larry and his girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, forged a requisition from the Filmfair studios. They used this to purchase 45 four-foot diameter weather balloons and the necessary helium tanks to fill them from the California Toy Time Balloons store. The cover story Larry used was that the studio needed the balloons for an advertising shoot.
The pair returned to Carol's house in San Pedro, California, and started to set things up in her backyard. Larry's friend, Ron Richlin, also came along to help and to act as 'ground crew'. The trio proceeded to inflate the balloons with helium and attach them to the patio chair. They attached some plastic bottles filled with water, to act as ballast, and Larry picked up an airgun so that he'd be able to shoot the balloons when he needed to come back down to earth. In addition, Larry equipped himself with a CB radio, so he could talk to his ground crew, and a camera to take pictures. With his plan of a pleasant afternoon's floating ahead, Larry packed himself a few sandwiches, some soft drinks3 and then strapped himself into the chair.
At Larry's request one of his 'friends' then cut one of the two cords tethering the chair to Ron's Jeep. All was okay for a while, but then the other nylon tether snapped and Larry started to rise. However, instead of rising to a mere 1000 foot, the balloons rapidly took Larry up to a lofty 16,000 feet!4 Stunned by this shocking development, Larry's glasses fell from his nose. Fortunately, he had a spare pair, so simply radioed his ground team saying:
I can see perfectly — don't worry5.
Larry did not dare shoot the balloons as planned in case the chair became unbalanced and he fell. So he was helpless when the chair started drifting first over Long Beach Harbour and then over the landing approaches to Long Beach airport. Here, TWA and Delta airlines pilots spotted him and reported him to the control tower. Larry then had contact with REACT, a CB monitoring organization, who recorded their conversation:
REACT: What information do you wish me to tell them (the airport) 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.
However things were not okay. Larry had been in the air for 45 minutes and at that altitude it is very cold. With planes flying around him, he realised he needed to get back down to terra firma. He took the airgun and shot out a couple of balloons. This seemed to have the appropriate effect and Larry started to descend6. Larry hoped his descent would land him at the lawn of the Long Beach Country club, but instead he came up short. Landing at 432 45th Street, a residential neighbourhood in North Long Beach, his amateur aircraft finally settled on some high voltage power lines 10 miles from his starting point. The plastic safety covers protected Larry from electrocution, but he was stuck in place until the fire brigade and utility crewmen could cut the lines to free him, consequently blacking out long Beach for 20 minutes.
Trials and Tribulations
Long Beach police immediately picked Larry up upon his landing, but faced a tricky situation in charging him. The regional safety inspector of the Federal Aviation Administration, 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.
With the reporters on Larry's tail a law needed to be found that he could be charged with and at the FAA hearing on the 17 December, 1982, Larry was charged with a total of four counts:
Operating a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate.
Operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.
Creating a collision danger for other aircraft.
Failing to take care to prevent hazards to the life and property of others.
This created a grand total fine worth $4000 that Larry immediately decided to fight stating that:
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 following April the FAA relented slightly and decided to drop the charge based on the chair needing an airworthiness certificate and lowered the fine to $3000. Larry made a request of the FAA - if he changed his plea to guilty on the count of failing to make contact with the control tower and pay a $1000 fine, would they drop the other two charges. The FAA agreed, but on the basis that Larry compromise to a $1500 fine. The FAA statement said:
The flight was potentially unsafe, but Walters had not intended to endanger anyone.
Notoriety and Tragedy
Larry became a celebrity overnight. When interviewed by the press and media, he stated that:
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.
Larry appeared on 'Late Night with David Letterman' and 'The Tonight Show', as well as making a few guest appearances as a motivational speaker. However, he never made a lot of money from his adventures, other than a few hundred dollars here and there and a $1000 deal to appear in an advert for Timex watches based on 'adventurous individuals'. Meanwhile, Larry's personal life was falling apart. He split with Carol after spending 15 years of his life with her, left his job as a truck driver and became increasingly depressed. On the 6 October, 1993, Larry hiked to his favourite spot in the middle of the Angeles National Forest and committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.
Perhaps the most famous item of the flight was the actual chair. Larry gave it to a young boy called Jerry who lived locally and had shown in interest in the story. Long thought lost7, the chair turned up some 20 years later in the same condition it had originally flown in. The now adult Jerry had contacted Mark Barry, the owner of a website documenting Larry's famous flight, and stated he still owned the chair, with ballast water bottles still attached, and has intended to donate it Larry's mother.
The Moral of the Story
Remember - next time you receive a funny story by e-mail, don't just assume it's only a tall tale. You never know — there may just be some actual grain of truth in it somewhere!
If you're wondering, as most people seem to do, why Larry even considered the flight in the first place, perhaps we can let the man himself answer. As he told the first reporter who also asked him the question why:
A man can't just sit around.