Lawrence Richard Walters, nicknamed "Lawn Chair Larry" or the "Lawn Chair Pilot" in the press, was a truck driver who took to the skies on July 2, 1982 in his lawn chair. He christened his airship Inspiration I.
I can still picture him: shades, mustache and above him, a cluster of balloons. His friends surrounded him in his backyard as he prepared for take off.
Like Wile E. Coyote pouring over his ACME blueprints, Larry thought of everything. He packed sandwiches, a CB, camera, cold beer and his pellet gun. His plan was to shoot the balloons when it was time for a descent.
Unfortunately, he incorrectly guessed the number of helium filled balloons he would need and had way too many tied to his chair. When his tether broke, he shot up, high above his home, high over Long Beach Calif.
Stifled by fear, he hesitated to shoot any of the balloons. Thousands of feet up, his chair continued to drift. He was spotted by a commercial airplane pilot as he neared LAX airspace. The United pilot called a control tower to report a man in a flying lawn chair.
It wasn’t until Larry got up above 15,000 feet and the air started to thin that he initiated his descent. According to some reports, he shot out seven balloons before dropping his gun. Seven was his lucky number that day. It was enough to bring him down slowly to his friends who were waiting.
They grabbed his chair, but not before it got tangled up in power lines causing a 20-minute blackout in a Long Beach neighborhood. Still, Larry lived another day. He got himself free and climbed to the ground where he gave his lawn chair to nearby kids.
There was an episode of my favorite radio show, Radiolab, called “The Universe Knows My Name.” In it, it is posited that the appeal of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote lies in the fact that he never escapes reality.
Try as he might, no matter how fast he spins his cartoon legs above the canyon, Wile E. is going to fall. Sometimes though, it seems like he just might get away with it – in those seconds when he hangs in midair just before the fall. And then gravity.
But solace can be taken in gravity. The fact that Wile E. does fall every time is the universe's way of saying, "I see you up there. You’re not getting away. You’re in this too!"
After 45 minutes in the sky, Lawn Chair Larry's life was changed, and it wasn’t. In the aftermath of his adventure, he paid some fines and went on the talk show circuit. But he never managed to capitalize on his notoriety enough to make back the money it cost him to build Inspiration I.
Still, there were others who followed in his footsteps.