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.