Lawnchair Pilot, Larry Walters
Dear Tom and Ray,
I listen to your show every Monday at work. I love your show. My husband gets Flying Magazine, and showed me this story.
Thought you both would get a boost from this.
Saint Marks, Florida
You've heard of Rickenbacker and Lindbergh and Doolittle. You've heard of Yeager. But have you heard of Larry Walters? Probably not. Yet Walters--like another relatively unsung hero, the legendary D.B. Cooper-- was made of that special stuff that separates aviation legends from the common run of folk.
In 1982 Walters, a truck driver by trade, bought a bunch of weather balloons at a surplus store. He filled them with helium and tied them to a lawn chair. He provided himself with a two-way radio, a parachute, some jugs of water, and an air rifle, and then cut his conveyance loose from the bumper of his car, which was anchoring it to the ground.
Take a moment to imagine the thrill and terror of that ascent, transforming a man surrounded by the normal appurtenances of life - garden, house, sport-ute - into a speck floating in an infinite space. Had he rigged up some sort of seat belt? Did the chair tip and wobble? Did he call out to the ant-like figures below? We don't know.
It is clear, however, that he violated FARs by passing through Los Angeles TCA without a transponder or a clearance. Two passing jetliners reported to controllers that they had seen a man with a gun seated in a deck chair at 11,000 feet. A helicopter went up to take a look.
Walters had planned to descend by shooting out the balloons with his pellet gun, one at a time. He had deflated 10 of them this way, when he accidentally dropped the gun. Evidently 10 was enough. After being carried out to sea and back on the vagrant coastal breezes, he was snagged by powerlines in Long Beach, and led away in handcuffs. He is reported to have said, by way of explanation of his exploit, "man can't just sit around."
Walters subsequently fell on hard times, became bankrupt, and died by his own hand in 1993. But his memory survives as a model of those qualities of independence, vision, and disregard for common caution without which aviation would never have come into being.