Larry Walters had a few lifelong dreams. The first was to be a pilot in the United States Air Force. The second was a crazy idea he had as a teenager. It turns out the Air Force had all the crazy it needed in its test pilot corps, but Walters opted to go for the first choice nonetheless — he was going to be a pilot.
It was a TWA pilot that first reported Walters’ triumphant taking to the skies. He did so by radioing the tower about a man in a lawn chair hovering at 16,000 feet.
Larry Walters didn’t join the Air Force. He couldn’t. It turns out, to join the Air Force as a pilot, you need excellent vision. It was truck driver Larry Walters’ one failing. His eyesight was terrible. So, he opted to finally try out the other choice — his crazy teenager idea — and that’s how Larry Walters made history.
He set about constructing his own flying machine, a craft he called Inspiration I. It was an idea he came up with as 13-year-old teen. He saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of a local Army-Navy store and was suddenly inspired. It was his “flux capacitor moment.” He did nothing with this inspiration for 20 years… until his rejection from the Air Force made it seem like he would never touch the wild blue yonder.
On Mar. 23, 1982, the Los Angeles native attached 42 helium-filled weather balloons to an ordinary Sears lawn chair. Attached to the bumper of a car, he packed a BB gun with him to shoot individual balloons as a means of slowly lowering his altitude. His intended course would take him over the Southern California desert and into the Rocky Mountains in just a few days’ time. But, surprisingly, things went wrong from the start.
Walters aboard Inspiration I.
First, one of the tethers holding the craft to the ground snapped early, propelling Walters into the air at 1,000 feet per minute. It caused him to lose his glasses. Secondly, at a cruising altitude of 16,000 feet it not only got much colder than expected, the currents took Walters over the restricted airspace above Los Angeles International Airport and Long Beach Airport.
REACT (a CB radio monitoring organization): What color is the balloon?
Larry: The balloons are beige in color. I’m in a bright blue sky which would be very highly visible. Over.
REACT: [Balloon] size?
Larry: Size approximately, uh, seven feet in diameter each. And I probably have about 35 left. Over.
REACT: You’re saying you have a cluster of 35 balloons??
Larry: These are 35 weather balloons. Not one single balloon, sir. It is 35 weather balloons.
REACT: Roger, stand by this frequency.
Eventually, Larry started to take out some of the balloons, but he was losing feeling in his hands and soon lost his BB gun as well. He finally landed at 432 45th Street in Long Beach, more or less unharmed.
He gave the chair to a local kid named Jerry, who kept the chair for the next 20 years in the same condition.
“Jerry” with Larry Walters’ lawn chain. The water jugs were used as ballast.
“By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream,” Walters told the Associated Press. “But I wouldn’t do this again for anything.”
Walters didn’t do it again, but his legacy lives on in the handful of civilian aviation enthusiasts who practice the art of cluster ballooning. Some of these enthusiasts have reached altitudes of higher than 20,000 feet — and some of them were never seen again after take off.