You Can’t Just Sit There

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In July 1982, 33-year-old Larry Walters of Long Beach, California, pulled off one of the craziest stunts in aviation history.

As a child Larry had longed to fly.  But poor eyesight disqualified him from pilot training. 

Then he got an idea.

Walters attached 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair.  He strapped himself in with a few sandwiches, a two-liter bottle of soda, a pellet gun, and a portable CB radio.  His plan was to hover 30 or 40 feet above his backyard for a few hours, then shoot a couple of balloons and drift back down to earth.

The 45 balloons had other ideas.

When his friends (“my ground crew,” as Larry called them) cut the cord that tethered him to the ground, Larry’s lawn chair began an ascent that would have made the crew of the SpaceX rocket proud.  He rose past 100 feet.  Then 500.  Then 1,000.  Larry finally began to level out at 16,000 feet.

Three things were now true: Walters was understandably reluctant to begin shooting balloons, he was freezing, and he had drifted into the airspace of Los Angeles International Airport.

A Delta pilot later said that every radio report from passing jets that afternoon began the same way: “Uh, you’re not going to believe this, but…”

For the next couple of hours Larry floated over greater Los Angeles.  He had brought along a camera but was so stunned by his circumstances that he forgot to take any pictures.  Finally he began shooting balloons.  His lawn chair, which he had named Inspiration One, at last began to descend.

The balloons became entangled in some power lines, where Larry dangled – yes, that’s him in the picture above – until he was rescued.

The FAA was understandably troubled.  “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act,” said a spokesman, “and as soon as we figure out which part it was, a charge will be filed.”

Larry became a national celebrity.  He was interviewed by both Johnny Carson and David Letterman.  His flight was included in that year’s Darwin Awards, which recognize people who improve the gene pool of the human race by eliminating themselves through seriously dumb behavior.  Walters received only an honorable mention because he actually lived to tell his story.

Once he was on the ground, Larry was led away in handcuffs by the authorities.  When a reporter asked why in the world he had done such a thing, he replied, “A man can’t just sit there.”

A man can’t just sit there.

Larry may not have gotten a lot of things right, but he was definitely right about that one. 

Human beings are endowed with a deeply felt, God-implanted hunger for significance.  And adventure.  Vanilla may remain the most popular ice cream flavor in the world.  But apart from facing challenges, taking risks, solving problems, and embracing intentional exits from our comfort zones, life is hardly worth living. 

We might paraphrase Jesus’ words in John 10:10 like this: “I didn’t come to give people sufficient security to let them play it safe, but to propel them into more life – real life – than they ever dreamed possible.” 

That may not entail launching ourselves into commercial airspace in a lawn chair. 

But it does mean refusing to let fear keep us stuck in our own backyards.