5 Flights of Lawn Chair Balloonists

Flickr: HeartLover1717
Flickr: HeartLover1717 / Flickr: HeartLover1717

In 1937, ballooning pioneer Jean Piccard tested his idea of using clusters of balloons to fly by attaching 98 latex weather balloons (thus not quite recreating “99 Luftballons”) to a conventional balloon basket. The idea stuck, with one small adjustment: lawn chairs instead of baskets.

Here’s a look at the few, the proud, the crazy enough to tie balloons to a lawn chair and take their relaxation skyward.

1. “Lawnchair Larry” Walters (1982)

Poor eyesight kept Larry Walters, a North Hollywood truck driver, from enlisting in the Air Force as a pilot. So Walters picked up 45 weather balloons from an Army-Navy surplus store and tethered them to his “extremely comfortable” aluminum Sears lawn chair—a project that cost about 4000 bucks. With a pellet gun, some sandwiches, and a bottle of Miller Lite in tow, Lawnchair Larry cut ties with his anchor, expecting to spend a few lazy hours floating 30 feet over his backyard.

Instead, Walters rocketed to 16,000 feet, startling airline pilots. After shooting a few balloons, the balloonist landed in a tangle of power lines, blacking out Long Beach for 20 minutes. Once safely grounded, he was promptly arrested by the LAPD. He’d later give the lawn chair away to neighborhood children, but when a reporter asked Walters why he did it, the handcuffed lawnchair balloonist deadpanned, “A man can’t just sit around.”

2. Mike Howard and Steve Davis (2001)

Left as a footnote in lawnchair balloonist history, Brit Mike Howard and American Steve Davis earned a paragraph in the 2008 Guinness Book of World Records for the Greatest Altitude Reached Using Helium Filled Party Balloons, which seems oddly specific for a world record.

On August 4, 2001, the duo flew 18,300 feet over Albuquerque, New Mexico using 1400 helium toy balloons. Howard previously tried to break the record in 1998 for the Guinness Book of World Records TV show, but capped his televised ascent at 3000 feet.

3. Kent Couch (2007)

Kent Couch’s first crack at lawn chair flight was a mess: In September 2006, the Oregonian gas station owner got himself stranded in the air for 6 hours, eventually shooting down a few balloons with a BB gun and parachuting out of his chair. Almost a year later, Couch took his lawn chair, some snacks, and another parachute for a flight he hoped would land him in Idaho.

It didn’t. After leaving his wife and pet Chihuahua on the ground, Couch floated 193 miles from home, but safely landed in a farmer’s field just short of Idaho. In 2010, Couch competed in (and lost) the first-ever lawn chair cluster balloon race, leaving his mark on the losing end of an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

4. Jonathan Trappe (2010)

An American adventurer abroad, Trappe hoisted a wicker chair (decked out with oxygen masks, satellite navigation, and an emergency beacon) over the English Channel with 54 oversized helium balloons. Setting off from the Kent Gliding Club in Ashford, Trappe—a trained pilot—landed in a cabbage patch in France 22 miles and four hours later.

Trappe, who also set a record stateside for the longest free-floating cluster balloon flight (109 miles over his home state of North Carolina in 14 hours), set his sights on crossing a slightly bigger body of water. This summer, he’ll try to balloon his way over the Atlantic Ocean, jetting off from Caribou, Maine.

5. Joe Barbera (2013)

This 60-year-old semi-retired engineer planned on floating his lawn chair some 200 miles from Washington to “somewhere in Oregon,” but Barbera chair-wrecked into a 40-foot tree in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Rescuers bailed him out after the 80-balloon contraption soared over 21,000 feet—way higher than Barbera anticipated.

Barbera and his team of “redneck engineers” toiled on the project for a month, but most of the gadgets the crew burdened the lawn chair with (a camera, an oxygen tank, and Barbera’s shoes) got ditched to get the lawnchair airborne. “We were making this up as we went along," Jay Elder, one of Barbera’s crewmembers, told a local newspaper.

Primary image courtesy Flickr user HeartLover1717.