A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did somebody once go aloft in a lawn chair tied to a bunch of helium balloons?

October 28, 1988

Dear Cecil:

For a long time I've heard stories about a man who tied a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair and went soaring into the heavens. I even spent an afternoon searching at the library to see if it was true, but no luck. I gave up, thinking it must be someone's wild imagination. Then the other day a story in the paper made mention of a mad balloonist named Larry Walters. Can you tell me more?

Cecil replies:

How fleeting is fame. It's been a mere 6 years since Larry Walters made his legendary flight, and already people are starting to think he's a mythical being. Au contraire. Larry, an authentic working-class hero (at the time he was driving a truck), went aloft July 2, 1982, from his girlfriend's backyard in suburban Los Angeles. His craft: an aluminum lawn chair borne by 42 helium-filled weather balloons.

Larry's original idea was that he would fly east to the Mojave desert, but it didn't quite work out that way. As his girlfriend and buddy were feeding out the tether, the line broke and he shot skyward. Eventually he reached 16,000 feet, where the pilots of at least two airliners saw him. Not wanting to cause a fuss, he began putting out calls on his portable CB radio. After a while his feet got cold, so he pulled out a pellet pistol and began shooting out balloons.

The descent was uneventful except for the fact that the balloons wrapped around some power lines at the end, knocking out the electricity in a Long Beach residential neighborhood for about 20 minutes. But Larry and his chair stayed clear — he simply dropped a few feet to the ground, having spent about 90 minutes in the air.

Most people thought the whole thing was pretty funny, and Larry got to appear on Letterman and the Today show. But the FAA was not amused. "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," a spokesman said.

Sure enough, Walters was charged with reckless operation of an aircraft, failure to stay in communication with the tower, and flying a "civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate." He wound up paying a $1,500 fine.

Well worth it, you think? Maybe. But Larry's life did not end well. He quit his job and made the rounds on the motivational speaking circuit for a while, but eventually this petered out. He and his longtime girlfriend broke up, and he could find only part-time work. In despair, he hiked into the Angeles National Forest near LA in 1993 and shot himself to death. He was 44 years old.

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