The 1997 Darwin Award Honorable Mention
The boyhood dream of Larry Waters of Los Angeles was to fly. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, poor eyesight disqualified him. When he was finally discharged, he had to satisfy himself with watching jets fly over his backyard.
One day, Larry, had a bright idea. He decided to fly. He went to the local Army-Navy surplus store and purchased 45 weather balloons and several tanks of helium. The weather balloons, when fully inflated, would measure more than four feet across.
Back home, Larry securely strapped the balloons to his sturdy lawn chair. He anchored the chair to the bumper of his jeep and inflated the balloons with the helium. He climbed on for a test while it was still only a few feet above the ground.
Satisfied it would work, Larry packed several sandwiches and a six- pack of Miller Lite, loaded his pellet gun– figuring he could pop a few balloons when it was time to descend– and went back to the floating lawn chair. He tied himself in along with his pellet gun and provisions. Larry’s plan was to lazily float up to a height of about 30 feet above his back yard after severing the anchor and in a few hours come back down.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair to his jeep, he didn’t float lazily up to 30 or so feet. Instead he streaked into the LA sky as if shot from a cannon.
He didn’t level of at 30 feet, nor did he level off at 100 feet. After climbing and climbing, he leveled off at 11,000 feet. At that height he couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons, lest he unbalance the load and really find himself in trouble. So he stayed there, drifting, cold and frightened, for more than 14 hours.
Then he really got in trouble.
He found himself drifting into the primary approach corridor of Los Angeles International Airport. A United pilot first spotted Larry. He radioed the tower and described passing a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. Radar confirmed the existence of an object floating 11,000 feet above the airport.
LAX emergency procedures swung into full alert and a helicopter was dispatched to investigate.
LAX is right on the ocean. Night was falling and the offshore breeze began to flow. It carried Larry out to sea with the helicopter in hot pursuit.
Several miles out, the helicopter caught up with Larry. Once the crew determined that Larry was not dangerous, they attempted to close in for a rescue but the draft from the blades would push Larry away whenever they neared.
Finally, the helicopter ascended to a position several hundred feet above Larry and lowered a rescue line. Larry snagged the line and was hauled back to shore. The difficult maneuver was flawlessly executed by the helicopter crew.
As soon as Larry was hauled to earth, he was arrested by waiting members of the LAPD for violating LAX airspace.
As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter dispatched to cover the daring rescue asked why he had done it. Larry stopped, turned and replied nonchalantly, “A man can’t just sit around.”
The above is the “urban legend” version of the story. The truth is almost as colorful. In 1982 Larry Walters did indeed soar into the cerulean blue to an altitude of 16,000 feet with in a lawn chair and 45 weather baloons and did excite the attention of startled pilots. However he managed to get down my himself. He popped a few balloons with his beebee gun and crashed into some power lines. Fortunately for him his chair dangled below the power lines. Unfortunately for people in the area his rig shorted out power in the area for twenty minutes. The FAA was not amused; he was fined $1500 for sundry air space violations. Copies of the newspaper accounts can be at these sites:
This page was last updated January 1, 2004.