Becoming a pilot for the US Air Force was a childhood dream of Larry Walters. While he never achieved that goal due to poor eyesight, Larry never gave up his dream of flying. When he was 13, some weather balloons he saw hanging in a military surplus store gave him an idea: “What if I could fly with balloons?” 20 years later, he finally decided to give it a go.
In July of 1982, Larry bought 45 eight-foot weather balloons and a handful of helium tanks. In the backyard of his home in Los Angeles, he then tied the balloons to an aluminum lawn chair fitted with water jugs for ballast. He filled the balloons with helium, put on a parachute and strapped himself in. He also grabbed his pellet gun, a CB radio, and a few sandwiches. His idea was to reach an altitude of 300 feet, fly east toward the Rocky Mountains and then shoot the balloons with his pellet gun to control his descent.
As soon as Larry cut loose his makeshift craft – which he named Inspiration I – he ascended far more rapidly than he had anticipated. He shot up to an altitude of 15,000 feet and drifted into the main airspace for Long Beach Airport. He was afraid that if he shot the balloons he’d lose his balance and fall out of the chair. He used his CB to make a mayday call to the authorities. Larry tried to remain calm, knowing that he’d either fall to his death, be hit and killed by a commercial jet, or be arrested upon landing.
After about 45 minutes in the sky, he finally summoned up the courage to begin shooting some of the balloons, until he accidentally dropped his gun overboard. He descended slowly. Eventually, his balloons’ cords got caught in an electricity line, causing a neighborhood blackout in the city of Long Beach. In the end, Larry was arrested and fined $4,000. He said,
“It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.”
Larry’s dangerous stunt made the national news, and it wasn’t long before others began to mimic him. It eventually gave rise to the extreme sport of cluster ballooning, from which many have died or floated away, never to be seen again. Little did Larry know that the realization of his childhood dream would inspire so many others with the same lofty goals.