What happens when you have a crazy ambition – and achieve it?
Anyone in the US above a certain age will remember the strange story of a man who in 1982 attached 42 helium-filled balloons to a chaise lawn chair so that he could float up into the sky and drift slowly over the countryside. It was an insane idea but he actually carried it out. But he rose much higher than he anticipated, to over 16,000 feet, so that he was in the flight path of commercial jets whose pilots radioed back to airport control about seeing a man in a lawn chair.
Back in 1998, George Plimpton wrote about Larry Walters’ flight. It is not that Walters did not take precautions. He included a parachute plus “a two-way radio; an altimeter; a hand compass; a flashlight; extra batteries; a medical kit; a pocketknife; eight plastic bottles of water to be placed on the sides of the chair, for ballast; a package of beef jerky; a road map of California; a camera; two litres of Coca-Cola; and a B.B. gun, for popping the balloons.”
The eight plastic bottles of water were so that they could be jettisoned if necessary. The idea of the B.B. gun was to control his altitude by reducing the number of balloons if necessary by popping them. These were not your ordinary party balloons, by the way. They were weather balloons that were 7-ft in diameter. Unfortunately, a gust of wind caused the chair to tilt and the gun, which he had not thought to tether, fell out. Luckily, it did not hit anyone on the ground. Fortunately, it dropped after he had shot seven of the balloons. Otherwise it is estimated that he could have risen to 50,000 feet and frozen to death. The flight lasted about an hour.
But things did not go well for Walters after the flight that made him momentarily famous and he died by suicide in 1993 at the age of 44.
I wonder if this story was the source for the idea for the wonderful, wonderful 2009 animated film Up that I gave a rave review for. Here’s the trailer.
Was Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin insane?
Very tragic to hear about the suicide. I always enjoyed reading about his lawn chair adventure.
Were his body to have reached 50,000 feet, I would guess the cause of death would have been suffocation, not hypothermia. It sounds like he was having a hard enough time breathing at 16,000 feet without having time to adjust.
@1 larpar: The insanity wasn’t using helium, it was trying to lift off without a good plan for controlling altitude or direction or anything else.
It is the sort of thing that could be some wild fun. If he had talked to hot air balloon people first and planned better go for it. I’m all for weird hobbies but this was “hold my beer” level aerial travel. There are any number of ways he could have killed himself or somebody else.
And I guess I should say it wasn’t trying to lift off, it was succeeding at lifting off where things got out of hand.
Matt G says
I got your trapeze reference, though it’s more my parents’ era.
Marcus Ranum says
I always thought he was lucky he lost the BB gun -- that seems like a pretty coarse altitude control. He had too much lift and he could have shot a few baloons then discovered he had nowhere near enough lift. Splat.
Mano Singham says
Matt G #5,
I was wondering if even one person would get it!
Mano Singham says
The water bottles were his device to take care of that problem. In fact, he did use the water because he was descending too fast at the end so he released all the water to slow himself down.
Remember the other balloon story from October 2009, the Heene family’s stunt where everyone thought their kid was in a loose balloon? It turned out they were trying to pitch a show to TV producers around the same time. Events like these are akin to the first “gender reveal party”. They started trends that have ended up escalating and people getting hurt.
I never saw the movie “Up” and don’t know any of the songs. Somehow I doubt they used The Fifth Dimension’s 1967 hit, “Up, Up And Away”. Walters would have known the song.
As for trapezes, here’s Spike Jones’ The Man On The Flying Trapeze. Is it really 75 years old now (1947)? I grew up with this music in the house.
There is another tragic balloon chair story from Brazil ca a decade ago. A guy kept flying and disappeared over the South Atlantic.
Tabby Lavalamp says
birgerjohansson, not just any guy but a priest, I was going to bring that up too.
I missed our host’s trapeze reference, but now I can’t get flying lawn chairs out of my head. They go up, tiddley up, up / They go down, tiddley down, down.