The saga of the flying lawn chair -- a very tall tale

Larry Walters, one of the more buoyant pilots in aeronautics history, has been brought as low as a California earthworm by the law. A hostile world - or at least the Federal Aviation Administration - ruled earlier this month that Mr. Walters was an illegal flying object when he took off in his aluminum lawn chair , propelled by 42 weather balloons, on a flight from San Pedro to Long Beach. More or less.

At that time, two very agitated - and possibly jealous - jetliner pilots reported Mr. Walters and his lawn chair, cruising along at 16,000 feet. After several months of investigation, the FAA has informed the chaise-longue Lindbergh that he was in violation of at least four sections of the Federal Aviation Act.

He was operating a ''civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate.''

He had flown within the bounds of an airport traffic area ''without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.''

Floating serendipitously on his balloons, he had created ''a collision hazard.'' Worse, he had operated ''an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life and property of another.''

Go ahead and laugh, but if we don't know what an MX missile will do, how can we estimate the destructive potential of a flying aluminum lawn chair?

The idea is enough to earn those jet pilots combat pay - and maybe cost Mr. Walters $1,000 for each of his violations.

We don't want to take cheap shots against bureaucracy in the process of making Mr. Walters into a folk hero. We appreciate that there are an awful lot of aluminum lawn chairs in the country and the FAA has to do something to keep their owners from running to the nearest Balloons Ahoy franchise and making themselves airborne. But if the FAA will forgive our unstatesmanlike attitude, we'd worry a lot less about those jet pilots and the folks in the control towers than we would about all the aces locked into the reclining position, playing at Red Baron.

Those fellows are never going to buy flight insurance from our company, we'll tell you that.

Our only quarrel with the FAA concerns the severity of the punishment for magic lawn-chair fliers. We don't presume to play the judge, but $1,000 per infraction would buy an awful lot of lawn chairs. Some would argue that fluttering from San Pedro to Long Beach in an aluminum lawn chair at 16,000 feet ought to constitute punishment enough for anything this side of first-degree murder. And then Mr. Walters had to make his descent by popping his balloons, one at a time. You could deter a few criminals by threatening them just with the landing.

We think everybody's aim should be: Hold the lawn chairs down, but don't make life too dull in the process. Nor should the ''right stuff'' in Mr. Walters be allowed to wither away. We just hope NASA has his home phone number.

Why did Icarus spread his wings at the sun? Why did Mr. Walters give it his best shot with a lawn chair? The FAA may consider these questions irrelevant, but we don't.

Our hunch is that the motive for the exotic flight tracks back to Mr. Walters' profession. He is a truck driver. Has any member of the FAA commission coaxed a long-haul up a 45-degree grade lately? If you want a brute lesson in the force of gravity - the dead weight of inertia - this is it.

As he muscled his truck over the Rockies, say, did Mr. Walters ever lean out his cab and spy an eagle circling in the sky above, as proud and free as - well, an aluminum lawn chair? We just bet he did. And we're prepared to understand why he lived out his fantasy - once - before going back, as we all must, to the daily gear-grinding.

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