News & Articles

Upward Mobility

by Hannah Kushnick

Character Walter Griffin’s lawnchair flight is closely modeled on the exploits of “Lawnchair Larry” Walters, a Los Angeles truck driver who, with his girlfriend’s help, unofficially launched and flew a cluster of balloons attached to a lawn chair over Long Beach, CA, in 1982. After he tangled with both a power line and air traffic controllers, the regional safety inspector told a reporter, “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.” Walters retorted, “If the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk.” Hoping his adventure would carry him away from his mundane workaday life, Walters quit his job to take on motivational speaking engagements. Unfortunately he discovered that his celebrity was short-lived, and, disillusioned, he committed suicide eleven years after the flight, shooting himself in the heart. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence in cluster ballooning and the attendant attempts to parlay a flight into fame. In 2002, Adam Savage recreated Walters’ flight, but at such a low altitude that the watchers remained mostly unimpressed. But then, in 2006 and 2007, Jonathan Trappe and Kent Couch, respectively a mid-level consultant and a gas-station owner, completed unrelated flights (Trappe’s employing his office desk chair as a gondola). They documented their exploits in websites advertising their services for appearance in hot-air festivals and possible publicity stunts. Then, in 2008, came the most audacious of the Walters imitators: Brazilian priest Adelir Antonio de Carli wanted to raise money and awareness for a spiritual rest area for truck drivers, and so he embarked on a highly publicized attempt to break the world record for achieved altitude in a cluster balloon. Carli’s balloon quickly flew above the clouds, losing touch with his ground crew. Some days after he was declared missing, the lower half of his body was found floating in the sea, attached to the gondola of his balloon cluster. It was speculated that he did break the record, but the achievement cost him his life. Even within the relatively small and eccentric world of aviation tinkerer-inventors (think the Wright Brothers, Da Vinci, Daedalus), cluster balloonists are unusual. The venture is perfectly suited to the aviation underdog: due to the smallness and simplicity of the craft, a cluster ballooning excursion requires enthusiasm, but little in the way of money, engineering know-how, flying technique or licensing. More than a high-tech experiment, it’s an escape. Furthermore, the unpredictability and danger of cluster ballooning rewards the rebel; those who throw caution quite literally to the wind achieve the most exhilarating heights. The nature of the craft also appeals to the individualist—not only are cluster balloons intended for a single occupant, but they are, exceptionally, intended for a single use. Since the balloons are released or popped, one by one, to allow the craft to descend, a new cluster must be made for each flight. In short, cluster balloonists are very different from other aviators: they are idealistic individuals striking out in their solo crafts, leaving friends, rules and gravity behind to claim a piece of the sky. In a way, there’s something quintessentially American about the idea of cluster ballooning—such escapism, democracy, adventurousness and individualism are part and parcel of the American Dream. Cluster ballooning, like the Dream, operates under the assumption that one lucky, hardworking Everyman can achieve a meteoric rise to heights undreamed-of by his less imaginative peers, escaping from mediocrity to solitary greatness. When asked what inspired him to fly, Walters quipped, “A man can’t just sit around.” For dreamers—those to whom conventional wisdom does not apply, for whom the rise from the mailroom to the skyscraper corner office is neither appealing nor feasible—the siren song of another kind of flight can be irresistible. And for an increasing number of Americans, recent decades have brought the discovery that our much-vaunted equality of opportunity doesn’t guarantee universal success. Especially as we grapple with the challenges posed by the current economic climate, the urge to escape is more relatable than ever. Certainly, such escapes can have dark consequences, as Walters and Carli discovered, but they can also allow the earthbound human to elude definition by day job or social standing, to soar to unplanned heights, to strike out with nothing but balloons and a chair for the unknown.