The Legacy of ‘Lawnchair Larry

Clockwise from left: Larry Walters in flight, after the flight and his flight plan (Images: Google, KTLA-TV)

Larry Walters was a truck driver by trade, but history remembers him for the patio chair he drove erratically through the approach airspace to Los Angeles International Airport. Although his risky and illegal stunt turned him into a cult hero, it also cost “Lawnchair Larry” $1,500 in FAA fines and earned him plenty of ridicule. His voyage happened 37 years ago this month.

As recounted in a 1998 New Yorker article, the story began when a young Walters visited Disneyland and saw a lady with a large cluster of balloons. He imagined what it would be like to take flight underneath them. A few years later, Walters saw a weather balloon at a military supply store and concluded that a big bunch of those oversized balloons would be enough to lift him (and a chair) into the air.

He never stopped dreaming about that possibility, but another 20 years passed before Walters acted on the fantasy. While on the road at a Holiday Inn, he sketched a plan on placemats and convinced his long-skeptical girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, to go along with it. Walters took off from her back yard on July 2, 1982, carried aloft by a batch of balloons that was 150 feet high.

The flight of Inspiration, the name of Walters’ amateur aircraft, didn’t go at all as planned. When the last tether that restrained his chair and 42 helium-filled weather balloons snapped, he soared faster and higher than expected. Rising at 800 feet per minute, he eventually climbed to about 16,500 feet, or nearly three miles high.

Although Walters took a pellet gun in order to pop balloons and stop his ascent, he dropped the gun after shooting seven balloons at about 15,000 feet. By the time he reached his peak height, he was laboring for breath because he had not taken oxygen, and his toes were numb. He thought about jumping and using the parachute he was wearing.

He’s lucky he lived. You’re encouraged to use oxygen above 10,000 feet and required to use it above 12,500 feet in a small plane. And Walters was stuck up there.