1:27 PM

Flying Lawnchairs
and the Eugene
Theater Scene

People who have visited my hometown of Eugene, Oregon know it is a politically progressive enclave of creative thinkers. We welcome open minds from around the country to join the high number of real live hippies left over from the colorful '60s. If you remember anything about the late Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters – their psychedelic 1964 jaunt around the country in a Day-glo painted school bus named "Furthur" being the subject of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" – then you will understand why we have a statue of Kesey (a longtime Eugene area resident) downtown on a very prominent corner.

Eugene is known for its lively arts community, which was reason #1 for Julie and I to move our business and life to this peaceful place. But while we have an over abundance of highly talented musicians, and visual artists, there is also no shortage of stage talent. Because of this, I would bet we have per capita the highest number of small, non-profit theaters and large organized thespian groups anywhere.

So about now, I'm sure you are asking what the heck this has to do with flying and aviation. Stay with me here...

This weekend, we enjoyed a performance of "Flight Of The Lawnchair Man" at a small but very cool dinner/show venue downtown called Actors Cabaret. The play was the Northwestern premiere of the story of Jerry Gorman, a dyslexic regular guy from Passaic, New Jersey who just wants to fly. His neighbors and mother thinks he's nuts, but with support from his wife, he straps 400 helium balloons to a Wal-Mart lawn chair and soars to FL160 out over the Atlantic. With the FAA/FBI/TSA guy on the ground ready to shoot Gorman down, Jerry and his chair go off to fly with Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Leonardo da Vinci, who all become integral parts of the second act when Jerry suffers hypoxia while drifting aimlessly along at 16,000 feet.
The play is based rather loosely on the 1982 "flight" of truck driver Larry Walters, who tied 45 weather balloons to a lawn chair and took a 45-min. ride over Los Angeles. There are plenty of similarities between the play and Walter's story, and overall we enjoyed the Actor's Cabaret performance. I found it authentic from an aviation standpoint, and it was highly entertaining. The main point – that some of us long to fly but cannot – was handled perfectly, right down to the 34-year-old Gorman still wanting to play with his toy airplane collection. What, I ask, is wrong with THAT?

There was no mention of another Oregon cluster balloon (the official name of flying via lawn chair) flight last year:
On Saturday, July 7, 2007, Kent Couch, of Bend, attached 105 large helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair, and departed on an unauthorized eastbound flight in an attempt to reach Idaho. Couch carried a global positioning system device, instruments to measure his altitude and speed, four plastic bags holding five gallons of water as a ballast, a two-way radio, a digital camcorder and a cell phone. After nearly nine hours, Couch had covered 193 miles at FL110 or higher, but was short of Idaho. He landed in a farmer's field near Union, OR. This flight went better then Couch's previous attempt when he took a six-hour flying lawn chair ride to FL150. Like Walters, he used a BB gun to shoot the balloons and initiate a smooth descent, but instead went into a rapid descent. After jettisoning his goods, including food, drink and the BB gun, he eventually parachuted to safety.
Yes, Virginia, there are a handful of actual people who are licensed balloonists and regularly fly lawn chairs...or more accurately, just hang from a harness. One of them is John Ninomiya, who has an online logbook available here.

Strange but true, this flying of lawn chairs. But in pondering this topic, I wondered if it wouldn't be slight more practical to launch a La-Z-Boy instead? Sure you would need more balloons to heft the additional weight, but the feel of riding atop the sumptuous leather would be like riding in those precious first-cabin seats most of us always have to walk past when we board a commercial airliner.

Or you can just get your FAA Sport Pilot ticket and do it the legal way. More fun, and you don't need a gun to initiate a descent.

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