RICHARD KAY: On David Blaine’s balloon stunt and Lawnchair Larry

This was certainly one way to beat the rush-hour traffic. Nonchalantly clutching 52 gas-filled balloons in one hand, illusionist David Blaine soared almost five miles into the bright blue sky above Arizona, instantly writing another chapter in his colourful life as a publicity-loving performer of flamboyant stunts.When he finally let go — at the cruising altitude of a passenger jet — and floated back to earth on a parachute, Blaine, 47, who once spent 44 days suspended in a glass box 30 ft above the Thames, claimed that he had been inspired by childhood memories of the 1956 French film Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon), which tells the enchanting story of a young boy following a balloon, which seems to have a mind of its own, around the streets of 1950s Paris.On social media, however, fans likened Blaine’s exploit to something more contemporary — the plot of the hugely successful 2009 animated Hollywood film Up, in which an irascible elderly widower floats off in a house fastened to hundreds of balloons. Magician David Blaine, pictured, soaring above the Arizona desert during his latest stunt Blaine, who was equipped with a parachute, live streamed the stunt over Page, Arizona The magician, pictured, was equipped with oxygen as he soared almost five miles into the skyBut yesterday an altogether more intriguing explanation emerged, suggesting that the showman had fact rather than fiction on his mind when he lifted off from a desert airstrip in Page, Arizona.Indeed, many are now wondering if his latest feat is grounded in a strikingly similar case of daredevilry carried out by an American truck driver over California almost 40 years ago.Larry Walters achieved what the Los Angeles Times patronisingly called ‘dubious fame’ when he strapped a garden chair to 42 weather balloons and rocketed 16,000 ft above Long Beach, California, before careering dangerously through the bustling airspace of Los Angeles LAX international airport and plunging into power lines — blacking out an entire neighbourhood. Miraculously, he alighted from his adventure unscathed. Blaine’s stunt was first performed by Larry Walters, who in 1982, strapped his favourite lawn chair to 42 weather balloons and ascended 16,000 feet into the sky, crossing the busy skies approaching Los Angeles airport before coming down in Palm Beach and knocking out the local power supply Unlike Walters – who was soon nicknamed Lawnchair Larry, Blaine sought approval from authorities for his stunt. Police arriving at the scene of the 1982 effort, did not know what to charge him with – though they were certain he must have broken some lawsWhen asked why he did it, Larry replied: ‘A man can’t just sit around.’ Lawnchair Larry, as he was immediately dubbed, was propelled to the status of heroic fool, appeared on coast-to-coast chat shows and even starred in a commercial for Timex watches.Unlike David Blaine with his safety harness, oxygen and ground crew live-streaming the enterprise on YouTube, Walters’s imagination owed more to the wing-and-a-prayer charms of Heath Robinson, the pre-war illustrator of eccentric contraptions.Fired by a lifelong dream to fly, but rejected by the air force because of poor eyesight, he had the simplest of machines. He pumped the balloons full of helium, lashed them to the aluminium outdoor chair, using plastic bottles of water as ballast, and packed an air pistol with which he was going to shoot the balloons one by one to descend slowly to the ground.In all, he planned to rise to about 100 ft, level off and perhaps take some pictures, eat a sandwich and drink some beer, then return to ground in his girlfriend’s backyard. It didn’t work out like that. Of course it didn’t. The guy rope attaching his ‘craft’ to a friend’s 1962 Chevrolet snapped, pitching Larry forward so violently his glasses flew off as the untethered chair raced skywards at 800 ft a minute as if shot from a cannon.Later, he recalled: ‘The higher I went, the more I could see, and it was awesome. Sitting in this little chair and, you know, man, unreal . . . I could look up the coast, like, for ever. At one point, I caught sight of a little private plane below me. I could hear the buzz of its propeller — the only sound. I had a camera but I didn’t take any pictures. This was something personal. I wanted only the memory of it — that was vivid enough.’But, suddenly, Larry was hurtling so high he was soon in commercial airspace. A TWA pilot spotted him and calmly radioed that he was passing a man in a lawn chair with a pistol in his hands.And a Delta airline pilot reported an incredible sighting of a chair crossing the primary approach corridor to LAX, saying: ‘We have a man in a chair attached to balloons in our ten o’clock position, range five miles away.’According to Larry’s altimeter, he began levelling out at 15,000 ft. ‘The air was getting thin,’ he said. ‘ “Enough of the ride,” I thought. I’d better go into a descent.’He estimated that he needed to pop seven balloons to control his glide to earth and pulled out his gun. Then he was hit by a sudden gust of wind tilting the chair forward and the gun fell from his grip. Larry started climbing again. He was now at 16,500 ft, more than three miles high, and later said he was ‘about 15 seconds’ from hauling himself out of the chair and pulling the parachute ripcord.But as a novice with only one jump to his name, it would have been a huge risk. And then the fates intervened again. The balloons started to leak and the hiss of escaping helium saw him begin gliding earthwards. By now, it was cold. ‘My toes got numb,’ he recalled.At 13,000 ft, he switched on his citizens band radio to speak to an operator at an emergency rescue unit who kept asking what airport he had taken off from. Larry kept repeating it wasn’t an airport but the back garden of his girlfriend Carol’s mother’s house.‘The balloons are orange. I’m in a bright blue sky. They should be highly visible,’ he said, adding: ‘And I probably have 35 left. Over.’The operator squeaked: ‘Did you say you have a cluster of 35 balloons?’ Larry replied: ‘Just tell Carol that I love her,’ and snapped the radio off. At 2,000 ft with the ground racing up, he slashed with a penknife at the water-filled bottles strapped to the side of the chair, sending 35 gallons cascading down. Still the ground was getting closer and closer. ‘I could see these rooftops coming up and then these power lines,’ he said.The remains of the burst balloons snagged on the wire, blacking out the Long Beach neighbourhood for 20 minutes. ‘I nestled into the power lines, hanging about 8 ft under the bottom strand. If I’d come in a little higher, the chair would have hit the wires. I could have been electrocuted.’Instead, a stepladder was produced and Larry, without a scratch, clambered down. Several other people have attempted Walters’ stunt before Blaine, pictured – including a Japanese adventurer who set off in 1992 near Kyoto and was last seen 500 miles offshore over the Pacific oceanHis two-hour adventure left him with a £1,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration, top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas and international admiration. He was even flown to New York for David Letterman’s chat-show.His trailblazing triggered a host of imitators. In 2007, Kent Couch, an Oregon gas station proprietor, ‘flew’ 240 miles in a lawn chair powered by balloons. Ten years ago, American Jonathan Trappe crossed the English Channel suspended by a cluster of balloons.But not all were successful: in 1992 a Japanese adventurer took off from near Kyoto and was last located 500 miles offshore over the Pacific. He was never seen again.Larry’s own story, which so easily could have ended in catastrophe, began in July 1982. He had dreamed of a balloon flight ever since a visit to Disneyland, aged eight, where he saw someone holding what seemed like ‘a zillion Mickey Mouse balloons’.Later, he calculated how much helium he would need to lift his favourite garden chair. Once the balloons were inflated, the whole contraption stood 150 ft high.But, unlike David Blaine, Larry Walters did not pursue fame. Eleven years later, he hiked into Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart. He was unmarried, had no children and left no note to explain the motive.Little could he have imagined that more than 25 years later, his extraordinary feat would become inextricably linked with one of the most famous daredevils alive.
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