Contributor: Barry Fetzer
Sources: The New York Times Archives
Balloons! Discounting the recent Chinese Spy balloon debacle, balloons (perhaps the simplest of aerial phenomena), are fun! But we’re not talking party balloons, get-well balloons, or chintzy (but certainly daring…or was it intoxicated?) lawn chair balloon flights, one of the first one of these “intoxicating” events described over 40-years ago by the NY Times as follows:
TRUCK DRIVER TAKES TO SKIES IN A LAWN CHAIR
July 3, 1982/Credit: The New York Times Archives
A truck driver with 45 weather balloons rigged to a lawn chair took a 45-minute ride aloft to 16,000 feet today before he got cold, shot some balloons out and crashed into a power line, the police said.
”I know it sounds strange, but it’s true,” Lieut. Rod Mickelson said after he stopped laughing. ”The guy just filled up the balloons with helium, strapped on a parachute, grabbed a BB gun and took off.”
Dubbed “Lawn Chair Larry”, the man was identified as Larry Walters, 33 years old, of North Hollywood. He was not injured. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused.
A regional safety inspector, Neal Savoy, said the flying lawn chair was spotted by Trans World Airlines and Delta Airlines jetliner pilots at 16,000 feet above sea level.
”We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed,” Mr. Savoy said. ”If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.”
The police said Mr. Walters went to a friend’s house in San Pedro Thursday night, inflated 45 six-foot weather balloons and attached them to an aluminum lawn chair tethered to the ground.
With half a dozen friends holding the tethers, he donned a parachute, strapped himself into the chair and had his friends let him up slowly.
Minutes later, he was calling for help over his citizens band radio. ”This guy broke into our channel with a mayday,” said Doug Dixon, a member of an Orange County citizens band radio club. ”He said he had shot up like an elevator to 16,000 feet and was getting numb before he started shooting out some of the balloons.”
Mr. Walters then lost his pistol overboard, and the chair drifted downward, controlled only by gallon jugs of water attached to the sides of his chair as ballast.
The ropes became entangled in a power line, briefly blacking out a small area in Long Beach. The chair dangled five feet above the ground, and Mr. Walters was able to get down safely.
”Since I was 13-years old, I’ve dreamed of going up into the clear blue sky in a weather balloon,” he said. ”By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream. But I wouldn’t do this again for anything.”
Nope. No chintzy lawn chairs for this edition of This Day in Aviation. We’re talking real, complex, balloon “aircraft”, such as the Double Eagle II that, as reported by History.com, “on August 17, 1978, completed the first transatlantic balloon flight when it landed in a barley field near Paris, 137 hours after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. A helium-filled balloon, the Double Eagle II, was piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman and flew 3,233 miles in the six-day odyssey.
The Double Eagle II (photo courtesy of imasportsphile.com)
Human flight first became a reality in the early 1780s with the successful development of the hot-air balloon by French papermaking brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. Soon balloons were being filled with lighter-than-air gas, such as helium or hydrogen, to provide buoyancy. An early achievement of ballooning came in 1785 when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first to cross the English Channel by air. In the 18th and 19th centuries, balloons were used more for military surveillance and scientific study than for transport or sport. As a mode of air travel, the balloon was supplanted by the self-propelled dirigible–a motorized balloon–in the late 19th century.
In the early 20th century, however, interest in sport ballooning began to grow, and an international trophy was offered annually for long-distance flights. Belgian balloonists dominated these early competitions. After World War II, new technology made ballooning safer and more affordable, and by the 1960s the sport enjoyed widespread popularity. The transatlantic flight, first accomplished by aircraft and dirigible in 1919, remained an elusive goal of elite balloonists.
From 1859 until the flight of the Double Eagle II in 1978, there were 17 unsuccessful transatlantic balloon flights, resulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. In September 1977, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson made their first attempt in the Double Eagle I but were blown off course and forced to ditch off Iceland after traveling 2,950 miles in 66 hours. Abruzzo took several months to recover from frostbite suffered during the ordeal, but by 1978 he and Anderson were ready to make the attempt again. They added Larry Newman as a third pilot, and on September 11, 1978, the Double Eagle II lifted off from Presque Isle, Maine.
The 11-story, helium-filled balloon made good progress during the first four days, and the three pilots survived on hot dogs and canned sardines. The only real trouble of the trip occurred on August 16, when atmospheric conditions forced the Double Eagle II to drop from 20,000 feet to a dangerous 4,000 feet. They jettisoned ballast material and soon rose to a safe height again. That night, they reached the coast of Ireland and on August 17 flew across England enroute to their destination of Le Bourget field in Paris, site of Charles Lindbergh’s landing after flying solo in a plane across the Atlantic in 1927. Over southern England, their wives flew close enough to the balloon in a private plane to blow kisses at their husbands.
Blown slightly off course toward the end of the journey, they touched down just before dusk on August 17 near the hamlet of Miserey, about 50 miles west of Paris. Their 137-hour flight set new endurance and distance records. The Americans were greeted by family members and jubilant French spectators who followed their balloon by car. That night, Larry Newman, who at 31 was the youngest of the three pilots, was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades before.
In 1981, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan flew from Nagashimi, Japan, to Mendocino National Forest in California in the first transpacific flight. American Joe Kittinger made a solo transatlantic balloon flight in 1984. In 1995, American Steve Fosset accomplished a solo transpacific flight. One of the last frontiers of ballooning was conquered in 1999, when Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Englishman Brian Jones completed the first nonstop trip around the world in a hybrid helium and hot-air balloon. They flew from the Swiss Alps, circumnavigated the globe, and landed in Egypt, having traveled more than 29,000 miles in 20 days.
Then, in 2002, American adventurer Steve Fossett became the first man in history to fly around the world solo in a hot-air balloon.”