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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

Darwin Award Winner

The Darwin Award is presented every year to an individual (or the remains thereof), who has done the most to remove undesirable elements from the human gene pool. The 1995 winner was the fellow who was killed by a Coke machine which toppled over on top of him as he was attempting to tip a free soda out of it. In 1996 the winner was an air force sergeant who attached a JATO (rocket) unit to his car and crashed into a cliff several hundred feet above the roadbed.

The 1997 winner is Larry Waters of Los Angeles - one of the few Darwin winners to survive his award-winning accomplishment. Larry's boyhood dream was to fly. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, poor eyesight disqualified him. When he was finally discharged, he had to satisfy himself with watching jets fly over his backyard.

One day, Larry decided to fly. He went to the local Army-Navy surplus store and purchased 45 weather balloons and several tanks of helium. The weather balloons, when fully inflated, would measure more than four feet across. Back home, Larry securely strapped the balloons to his sturdy lawn chair. He anchored the chair to the bumper of his jeep and inflated the balloons with the helium. He climbed on for a test while it was still only a few feet above the ground. Satisfied it would work, Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of beer, loaded his pellet gun- figuring he could pop a few balloons when it was time to descend- and went back to the floating lawn chair.

He tied himself in along with his pellet gun and provisions. Larry's plan was to lazily float up to a height of about 30 feet above his back yard after severing the anchor and in a few hours come back down.

Things didn't quite work out that way. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair to his jeep, he didn't float lazily up to 30 or so feet. Instead he streaked into the LA sky as if shot from a cannon. He didn't level off at 30 feet; he leveled off at 11,000 feet. At that height he couldn't risk shooting any of the balloons, lest he unbalance the load. So he stayed there, drifting, cold and frightened, for more than 14 hours.

Eventually Larry found himself drifting into the primary approach corridor of Los Angeles International Airport. A United pilot first spotted him. He radioed the tower and described how he'd passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. Radar confirmed the existence of an object floating 11,000 feet above the airport. LAX emergency procedures swung into full alert and a helicopter was dispatched to investigate. LAX is right on the ocean. Night was falling and the offshore breeze began to flow. It carried Larry out to sea with the helicopter in hot pursuit. Several miles out, the helicopter caught up with him. Once the crew determined that he was not dangerous, they attempted to close in for a rescue but the draft from the blades would push Larry away whenever they neared.

Finally, the helicopter ascended to a position several hundred feet above Larry and lowered a rescue line. Larry snagged the line and was hauled back to shore. The difficult maneuver was flawlessly executed by the helicopter crew. As soon as Larry was hauled to earth, he was arrested by waiting members of the LAPD for violating LAX airspace. As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter dispatched to cover the daring rescue asked why he had done it. Larry stopped, turned and replied nonchalantly, "A man can't just sit around."

Editor's Note: Several alert readers wrote to APS News about the "Zero Gravity" item in the January 1998 issue on supposed 1997 Darwin Award Winner Larry Waters, the lawn chair balloonist. The incident described actually occurred in 1982, and some details were inadvertantly altered or embellished in the retelling. For example, Walters took along a large bottle of soda, not beer, and only spent about two hours aloft, although he did reach an altitude of about three miles and was reported to the FAA by an airline pilot who spotted him. He did use a pellet gun to pop balloons to come back to earth, but did not float out to sea. Instead, his balloons draped over power lines, blacking out a Long Beach, CA, neighborhood for 20 minutes. Although Walters survived the incident, he later committed suicide in 1993.

The reference to the JATO rocket incident in the opening note apparently did not occur; it is an example of a "Net Myth", a phenomenon described above. More information about Walters, the Darwin Awards and other "Net Myths" can be found at the following URLs: http://www.urbanlegends.com/misc/lawn_chair_balloonist.cfm or http://www.officialdarwinawards.com

If you have a good example of a "Net Myth," or other likely candidate for a future "Zero Gravity" column, send it to Editor, APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740; email: letters@aps.org.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin