Lawrence Richard Walters, nicknamed “Lawnchair Larry” or the “Lawn Chair Pilot”, (April 19, 1949 – October 6, 1993) was an American truck driver who took flight on July 2, 1982, in a homemade airship.
Dubbed Inspiration I, the “flying machine” consisted of an ordinary patio chair with 45 helium-filled weather balloons attached to it. Walters rose to an altitude of over 15,000 feet (4,600 m) and floated from his point of origin in San Pedro, California, into controlled airspace near Los Angeles International Airport. His flight was widely reported.
Walters had always dreamed of flying, but was unable to become a pilot in the United States Air Force because of his poor eyesight. He first thought of using weather balloons to fly at age 13 and 14, after seeing them hanging from the ceiling of a military surplus store. Twenty years later he decided to try it. His intention was to attach a few helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair, cut the anchor, and then float above his backyard at a height of about 30 feet (9.1 m) for several hours. He planned to use a pellet gun to burst balloons to float gently to the ground.
In mid-1982, Walters and his girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, purchased 45 eight-foot weather balloons and obtained helium tanks from California Toy Time Balloons. They used a forged requisition from his employer, FilmFair Studios, saying the balloons were for a television commercial. Walters attached the balloons to his lawn chair, filled them with helium, put on a parachute, and strapped himself into the chair in the backyard of a home at 1633 W. 7th St. in San Pedro. He took his pellet gun, a CB radio, sandwiches, cold beer, and a camera. When his friends cut the cord that tied his lawn chair to his Jeep, Walters’s lawn chair rose rapidly to a height of about 15,000 feet (4,600 m). At first, he did not dare shoot any balloons, fearing that he might unbalance the load and cause himself to spill out. He slowly drifted over Long Beach and crossed the primary approach corridor of Long Beach Airport.
He was in contact with REACT, a Citizen band radio monitoring organization, who recorded their conversation:
- REACT: What information do you wish me to tell [the airport] at this time as to your location and your difficulty?
- Larry: Ah, the difficulty is, ah, 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.
After 45 minutes in the sky, he shot several balloons, and then accidentally dropped his pellet gun overboard. He descended slowly, until the balloons’ dangling cables got caught in a power line, causing a 20-minute blackout in a Long Beach neighborhood. Walters was able to climb to the ground.
He was immediately arrested by waiting members of the Long Beach Police Department. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy was 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.” Walters initially was fined $4,000 for violations under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations, including 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. A charge of operating a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate” was dropped, as it was not applicable to his class of aircraft.
Just after landing, Walters spoke to the press, saying:
“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.”
After his flight, Walters was briefly in demand as a motivational speaker, and quit his job as a truck driver. He was featured in a Timex print ad in the early 1990s, but never made much money from his fame.
The lawn chair used in the flight was reportedly given to an admiring boy named Jerry, though Walters regretted doing so when the Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate it to its museum. Twenty years later, Jerry, by then an adult, sent an email to Mark Barry, a pilot who had documented Walters’s story and dedicated a website to it, and identified himself. The chair was still sitting in his garage, attached to some of the original tethers and water jugs used as ballast. The chair is now on loan to the San Diego Air & Space Museum, on exhibition through 2014.