The strange, sad odyssey of ‘Lawn Chair Larry’
Larry’s boyhood dream was to fly — and by God, he does.
“So many people have dreams and they never follow through on them.”
-“Lawn Chair Larry” Walters
On July 2, 1982, Delta and TWA airline pilots were stunned as they began their descents into Los Angeles International Airport and radioed in a UFO. They claimed to a mystified control tower that the unidentified object appeared to be a man seated in an aluminum lawn chair with a pistol in his hand, cruising along at 16,000 feet.
They were absolutely correct — the UFO was 33-year-old Larry Walters, fulfilling a childhood dream which ultimately took his life — but not in the way one may initially think. “When he went up into the clouds, and heard engines of planes, and he couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see him, he went ‘oh my goodness,’” the lawn chair-riding pilot’s fiancé later told a UPI reporter.
It was the understatement of 1982, and possibly the decade.
A resident of North Hollywood, California, 33-year-old Larry was just about as average a blue-collar, hard-working American as anyone. He was employed as a truck driver for a television commercial production company, and in his spare time enjoyed the company of his fiancé, Carol van Duesen in San Pedro.
He especially enjoyed a lawn chair he bought from Sears-Roebuck that he found “exceptionally comfortable” for relaxing and watching jets and passenger planes fly overhead on warm Summer evenings.
“He is the guy you barely know down the block, washing his car on a dull Sunday afternoon,” wrote columnist John Keasler in the July 8, 1982 Miami News of “Lawn Chair Larry.” “The guy you sit next to on the bus. All the frustrateds, all the regimented, all the conformists.”
Larry claimed that since he was 13 years old in the early 1960s, he had dreamed of ascending into the clear blue yonder in a balloon. “It was just something that hit him when he was 13, and he’s had a fascination on that for all these years …” van Duesen claimed.
In 1967 Larry joined the Air Force and went to Vietnam for the express reason to fly a plane, but military doctors shot down his childhood aspirations by finding his eyesight was simply too poor for piloting.
But bad eyesight was not going to stop Larry from shaking the surly bonds of earth. In March, 1982 he began buying the equipment and supplies he would need to accomplish his goal, including 42 weather balloons, helium tanks, a parachute, a BB gun (for shooting out balloons to descend), water jugs, an altimeter and a CB radio. He estimated he spent between $3,000 and $4,000 at an Army-Navy surplus store.
Although he spent days and days planning and preparing his chair for his journey, keeping journals and notes, he apparently did not research enough of how much helium would actually be required to lift him just over the housetops. He claimed he planned to drift lazily to a height of about 30 feet above the backyard, where he would enjoy a few hours of flight out over the Mojave Desert before popping some balloons and drifting back down.
As E.T. warmed our hearts in the theaters that summer, Lawn Chair Larry was about to stimulate our imaginations the way Spielberg and his syrupy puppet could never do.
Flight of Inspiration
Something in many of us wants to burst and blossom at all times, and that if sometimes in a given lifetime, a body doesn’t go straight up in a lawn chair, he or she will get more and more constricted and finally give up and live in that dull gray limbo, and start buying term insurance …
On Thursday, July 1, Larry traveled to Carol’s home and inflated the 42 balloons with helium, arranging them with nylon cables in six tiers rising almost 180 feet high. Then, on the morning of July 2, as the space shuttle Columbia completed a nearly flawless flight, Larry donned a parachute, strapped himself into his chair, dubbed “Inspiration I” and fastened via a guy wire to his jeep. He secured his CB radio, altimeter, camera, a sandwich and a two-liter Coke, and after a hearty farewell, ordered Carol and friends to release the guy wire.
But neither the launch or ascent went as planned. The wire broke prematurely, and propelled by 42 balloons filled with 33-cubic feet of helium each, Larry did not float languidly over the rooftops — he instead lurched off the ground as if fired from a slingshot, and continued to catapult upward until according to his altimeter he was over three miles off the ground.
Despite his glasses yanked from his face by the perilous ascent, he managed to radio Carol:
Carol: You’re going to be directly over us, so, in a few, about a minute or two. So look down and see if you can see us. Over.
Larry: Ok, I’ll be looking for ya.
Carol: We can already see your balloons. Maybe when you get over … you’re going to go into, you’re going to go into some blue stuff. Can you see us down now? Can you see us? Over.
Larry: Carol, I’m, I’m almost 6,000 feet over. I can’t see much of anything (laugh) except for a lot of houses. Over.”
Disregarding Carol’s pleas to return to earth, and after reaching such dizzying heights he didn’t dare shoot out any of the balloons, fearing he may unbalance the load and dump himself out of the chair. So, he clenched the armrest like grim death and sailed, cold and anxious with his Coke and sandwich, for almost an hour. He radioed his friends on the ground to let them know he was okay, despite enduring an air temperature of about 5˚F.
Then a bad situation grew worse. It dawned on him, as his feet and hands grew numb from the frigid temperatures, that he was not drifting east toward the Mojave, as he expected, but west toward the Pacific Ocean. He called in a Mayday on his radio to the Crest-REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communication Team) in Corona, California, which was also picked up by Doug Dixon, who was a member of an Orange County Citizen’s band radio club.
“This guy broke into our channel with a mayday,” Dixon explained to the AP. “He said he had shot up like an elevator to 16,000 feet and was getting numb … he sounded worried but he wasn’t panicked.”
The conversation as recorded by REACT:
REACT: What information do you wish me to tell them [air traffic control] 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.”
REACT: 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.
- it is unclear why Larry reported he had 35 balloons instead of 42.
Entering the primary approach corridor of LAX, and with the awful reality of eventually ditching in the ice-cold and turbulent Pacific looming, Larry got up his nerve, pointed his BB gun up and fired. One balloon popped. Then two.
Nothing happened. His concern starting to turn to panic, Larry shot out seven more balloons before he accidentally fumbled and dropped his BB gun somewhere over Orange County.
Thankfully, before he dropped the gun, however, he had shot out enough balloons to start a fast descent, augmented by his 30 water-filled gallon jugs.
“I cannot say I was afraid or anything,” Larry later recalled of his rapid descent into a Long Beach neighborhood. “The part that was scary was the last 300 feet with the rooftops and telephone poles coming up so fast. I was praying I would not his one of those power lines and be fried or sizzled.”
After receiving a frantic 911 call from one of Larry’s ground crew, and seeing that Larry was fast approaching, the police had the power company kill the electricity in the area, leaving blocks of homes and businesses with no power. Then, as if by a miracle, Larry’s almost certainly crippling landing was arrested by his craft entangling in dead high-voltage lines, ending his 21-mile flight a mere five feet off the ground. He was swarmed by admiring neighbors and children, who helped him out of his chair.
“By the grace of God I fulfilled my dream,” he told the gathered crowd. “But I wouldn’t do it again for anything.”
A man can’t just sit around
After Larry was helped to safety, he was arrested by waiting members of the LAPD. As he was placed in a squad car in handcuffs, a reporter asked him why he had done it. He casually replied, “A man can’t just sit around.”
He added he had two regrets from his flight — he gave away his beloved lawn chair to those neighborhood children, and he reported he was so amazed by the view he neglected to take a single photograph.
“It was something I had to do,” he told the Los Angeles Times after serving two days in lockup. “I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm.”
He added that perhaps he could become a spokesman for Sear-Roebuck’s remarkable lawn chairs.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was not amused by Larry’s flight. Regional Safety Inspector Neal Savoy said “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, a charge will be filed … If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.”
“My mother thought I should be institutionalized, and probably still does,” Larry told the AP. “But she’s proud of me.”
On December 18 the FAA made good on their threat and levied four charges and over $4,000 in fines against Larry. Those charges included “operating a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate” and operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.”
Larry vowed to challenge the charges, proclaiming that “If the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk.” They eventually settled for a $1,500 fine, which Larry paid.
In addition to the fine, Larry also proudly accepted the top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas, and unbelievably discovered he had set the altitude record for gas-filled clustered balloons, although the distinction could not be officially recorded because he was unlicensed and unsanctioned. The Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate his lawn chair to the National Air & Space Museum, but he had to sheepishly admit he had given it away. He had also autographed and given away pieces of the deflated balloons.
In the months following the flight, he catapulted to fame and was the toast of the town. His journey was covered on NBC News. He guested with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and was flown to New York to be on “Late Night with David Letterman,” which he later said was the most fun he had ever had. He hired an agent but fired him soon after, claiming it was all “too much, too soon.”
“I didn’t think that by fulfilling my goal in life — my dream — that would create such a stir and make people laugh” he later told the Los Angeles Times.
Trying to parlay his flight into a career, Larry quit his truck-driving job in 1983 and went on the lecture circuit, remaining sporadically in demand at motivational seminars. “It’s amazing, there are people out there who still want to hear about it,” he said in 1988 of his flight.
But fame and fortune proved to be elusive and damning for this admittedly simple man, who actually longed to keep his uncluttered lifestyle. He lived in the same low rent North Hollywood apartment since 1971 and he had almost no bills. But as the attention petered out, and the speaking gigs got fewer and fewer, he found himself alone and without direction. He never married Carol van Duesen although they remained good friends, and he spent a lot of time hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains and doing volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service.
“I love the peace and quiet,” he said in 1988. “Nature and I get along real well.”
In 1991, nine years after his flight, Larry appeared in an advertising campaign for Timex, the watch that “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Timex spokesman Ron Sok said the company felt that Larry fit their campaign that touted ordinary individuals conquering enormous obstacles. Larry earned $1,000 from that ad, and he claimed at the time that with that check he finally financially broke even from his experience.
Despite his cheerful outward demeanor, Larry continued to battle personal demons, possibly as a result of his flight and the disruption it had caused in his modest life. Then, just before Thanksgiving, 1993, his mother, Hazel Dunham, disclosed that on the previous October 6, her son, who had the audacity to buck the authorities and pursue a lifelong ambition, had hiked to a remote spot in the Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart.
He was 44 years old, he left no suicide note and no one was sure of his motive.
“It was his favorite place,” Mrs. Dunham said through tears of the forests where her son ended his life. “He loved those mountains.” In addition to his mother, he was survived by two sisters.
“I have never flown, not like he did, not with the vast world spinning away from me like a vast circus,” wrote Pennsylvania columnist T. W. Burger on December 3, 1993 of Larry’s courage and influence. “That makes me feel curiously unaccomplished, sitting here at a computer, heavy as a stone, while the air whistles at my window …”