July 2, 1982, San Pedro, Calif.— Larry Walters, a 33-year-old truck driver, lofted into the air in perhaps the most precarious way possible—in a Sears lawn chair. Lift was provided by 42 helium-filled weather balloons. Walters reached an altitude of three miles and stayed airborne for 11⁄2 hours before landing without injury (though he did get tangled in power lines) in a Long Beach neighborhood.
That was not his flight plan. And given the dubious premise of the flight, there was a surprising amount of planning. Walters had the foresight to equip himself with a parachute and a life jacket (but no seatbelt). He also had eight water bottles strapped to the chair for ballast, a two-way radio, a road map and some beef jerky. But most important, he had a BB gun—after reaching his desired altitude, the idea was to take a good look around and then begin shooting out the balloons one by one while prevailing winds carried him to a soft landing in the Mojave Desert.
Events deviated from the script almost immediately. Taking off from the backyard of his girlfriend’s house, Walters had a tether rope running between his chair and his friend’s 1962 Chevrolet Bonneville. He had hoped to ascend to about 100 feet and assess the situation, but his chair (which he dubbed Inspiration) was shooting upward so fast that it snapped the rope. Walters lurched forward violently and lost his glasses, but he had a backup pair. He was on his way.
When he reached 15,000 feet, Walters decided he’d had enough of sightseeing and it was time to start shooting out some balloons. He had ruptured seven of them when a gust of wind tipped him forward and the gun tumbled from his lap. No one was injured below, but with 35 balloons remaining, Walters still had more lift than he would have liked. He reached 16,500 feet—the temperature was near zero—and was contemplating using the parachute when the helium slowly started leaking from the remaining balloons and he at last began his descent.
Walters then had a radio conversation with understandably baffled authorities. One rescue dispatcher repeatedly asked, “What airport did you take off from?” To which Walters finally responded, “My point of departure was 1633 West Seventh Street, San Pedro.” A ground controller asked for the color of the balloons. “The balloons are beige in color,” Walters radioed back. “I’m in a bright-blue sky. They should be highly visible.”
There were legal issues awaiting Walters on his return to earth.“We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it it, some type of charge will be filed,” regional safety inspector Neal Savoy told a reporter. But for enacting his life’s dream and living to tell the tale, Walters ended up paying only a $1,500 fine.
First Military Aviators
July 5, 1912—Captain Charles Chandler and Lieutenants Thomas Milling and Henry “Hap” Arnold were presented with certificates that identified them as America’s first “Military Aviators.” After a year’s delay, the War Department complemented the certificate with a badge that featured an eagle dangling from a gold bar.
The designation of Military Aviator represented the fledgling Aeronautical Division’s first attempt at setting benchmarks for being a pilot; up to that point, the gold standard was simply staying in the air. The new qualifications were adopted from those of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale—reaching an altitude of 2,500 feet, flying in a 15 mph wind, carrying a passenger, landing within 150 feet of a target, and making a 20-mile cross-country flight.
The creation of a class of Military Aviators came at an appropriate time, as 1912 saw the United States’ first serious tests of a heavier-than-air craft in a military setting. Chandler, Milling and Arnold were all in the thick of this work. The three men were stationed at the new College Park, Md., aviation school, and they were flush with Congress’ first budgetary allotment specifically for aviation—money that allowed the Signal Corps to purchase five new planes, four of which (two Wright and two Curtiss) were based in College Park. In June Milling and Chandler fired a Lewis machine gun from altitude; in November, Arnold, in a Wright C, spotted artillery fire for ground troops as part of a drill at Fort Riley, Kan.
The College Park school closed in 1913, when its functions were relocated to the more predictably warm climes of San Diego, Calif., and Augusta, Ga. The Military Aviator designation was scuttled in 1914, when the Aeronautical Division became its own section of the Signal Corps and Congress mandated tougher standards for pilots. But while events moved quickly, those pioneer days left a lasting impression: Hap Arnold proudly wore his modest Military Aviator badge throughout his remaining 34 years of service, even after he became the U.S. Air Force’s first five-star general.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.