williamthomaswBy William Thomas

Just as men with brooms begat curling, men with balloons cause crashes. It happened again last week.

American Jonathon Trappe left Caribou, Maine, on a Thursday, hoping to become the first person ever to cross the Atlantic in a basket towed through the air by a bunch of party favours. I must say, the photograph of him rising above the ocean under a colourful cluster of 300 helium-filled balloons was spectacular. It was eerily reminiscent of “Up,” a beautiful little animated film in which an old man sets off to see South America from the front porch of his house, which is also suspended by a huge bunch of balloons.

The next day Royal Canadian Mounted Police were rescuing Jonathon Trappe from the wilds just inland from York Harbour, Newfoundland. Fortunately, the man was thrown clear in the crash. The irony of the headline “Trappe trapped in his own contraption” might have been too much to bear.

Trappe was not the first to trip the light fantastic skyward, high on helium and big on risk. By far, the best pioneer in the sport of gas-driven ballooning is still Larry Walters of North Hollywood, Calif. Many years ago, I wrote a newspaper article urging “Time” magazine to name Larry Walters their Man of the Year. For sheer brilliance of mind, for complete wisdom in thought and for absolute physical control of the elements — well, you’ll have to find your own Man of the Year.

Me, I picked Larry Walters who went where no man dared to go before, not in a lawn chair anyway. And not altogether willingly. Larry was my kind of guy, because he accepted the challenge of the human spirit and although, as any woman could have predicted, he did screw up big time, he also did not die.

With no apparent help from mind-altering drugs or even a rap on the noggin with a blunt instrument, Larry experienced a “Peter Pan-style dream to hook himself to a bundle of balloons and float high past the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis into the desert beyond.” This of course is the dream of every man, at least every man who wears leotards that are way too tight. So Larry built his dream ship and it consisted of a fold-up aluminum lawn chair attached to 42 helium-filled weather balloons and a bunch of milk jugs filled with water for ballast. Simply by design, Larry’s homemade dirigible had going-up power, going-down power and a lawn chair where a cockpit might normally be.

Larry’s onboard equipment consisted of a two-way radio, an altimeter, a wristwatch and a pellet pistol. Because he lacked an overhead compartment, Larry’s aviation tools were selected for their ability to fit in his pants pockets.

I know what you’re asking yourself — why the wristwatch? Well, that was so Larry could make it home in time for supper after his inaugural flight. The purpose of the pellet gun was to shoot out the weather balloons in the event Larry had to make an emergency landing.

One afternoon, Larry was doing a manned rehearsal of his aircraft in his girlfriend’s backyard in nearby San Pedro. It was windy and he noticed the ropes he had secured to the eaves troughs of the house had been rubbing against the sharp metal edge and — whoaaaaa! Larry Walters hurled himself into the space age a little prematurely.

Rising faster than a speeding basket, not one but two commercial airline pilots from Delta and TWA reported to the control tower the sighting of a man in a lawn chair airborne over L.A. International Airport. Drug testing being what it is in the airline industry, I don’t think any of us can imagine the courage it took those pilots to make those calls. Had a passenger made the spotting, you can be sure those tiny airline liquor bottles would be the first to go under lock and key.

At 16,000 feet going higher and getting dizzy in the cold thin air, Larry began shooting out the weather balloons with his pellet gun. His theory worked only too well and he came down out of the sky faster than … well … faster than a guy strapped in a lawn chair and attached to a lot of milk jugs filled with water.

He was headed for a crash landing on a golf course until the balloons’ tethers wrapped themselves around high-voltage lines. Larry, as the miracle and legend goes, was not killed. Untied like a tangled-up puppet, Larry was rescued by some extremely surprised golfers.

He later appeared in magazine ads for Timex, the maker of the wristwatch he was wearing during his flight. There’s no doubt that Larry’s Timex was still ticking and his face still twitches every time he spots a lawn chair.

Larry was paid $1,000 for the Timex ad and fined $1,500 by the United States Federal Aviation Administration for entering international airspace without an airplane.

My 1994 Man of the Year — free falling from 16,000 feet in a lawn chair — guys like Larry do not fold.