What is it about the balloon men? Ever since a California truck driver improbably took flight in an aluminum lawn chair in 1982 -- and as recently as this weekend in Oregon -- the balloon men have landed secure spots in popular culture, tying balloons to things and trying to fly away with them.
The balloon men have inspired musicals and movies, carried by flying lawnchairs, flying deckchairs, flying houses, landing in San Pedro, Ore., a fictional Venezuela, and somewhere in the very real Atlantic Ocean, beyond the coast of Brazil.
The most recent balloon men are Kent Couch and Fareed Lafta, who wanted to fly over Oregon, Idaho and into Montana on the strength of 350 helium balloons and the hopes of breaking a world record by completing a 500-mile float without dying.
They made it 30 miles Saturday before tough weather made them stop. They had parachutes. Also a BB gun. And gumption.
There are a lot of ways to fly, and the balloon men prefer the least practical and perhaps the most dangerous. They are Don Quixotes of the sky, do-it-yourselfers who neither need nor want pilot’s licenses or airline tickets to get where they’re going.
In 2008, a Brazilian priest, Father Adelir Antonio de Carli, tied 1,000 balloons to a harness seat because he wanted to draw attention to his parish’s work, which served mostly truck drivers. He wanted to float west; the wind pushed him southeast, over the ocean. They found bits of balloon littering the coast, and later, his body.
It was also a truck driver, a haunted dreamer from North Hollywood named Larry Walters, who in 1982 tied 42 weather balloons to an aluminum lawn chair he called Inspiration I. He later told the Los Angeles Times, “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ended up on the funny farm.”
He soared to 16,000 feet and returned to earth by shooting balloons with a pellet gun, finally crashing into some power lines in Long Beach. Eleven years later, he hiked out to a lonely spot in the Angeles National Forest to shoot himself in the heart.
The balloon men of fiction are often broken men made whole not by flight but by where they descend. Los Angeles’ “Lawnchair Larry” inspired the Aussie movie “Danny Deckchair,” in which a cement maker driver loses his girlfriend in the city but gets another one after he lands in the country.
In “Up,” Pixar’s 2009 film, a widower loses out on his lifelong dream to visit Venezuela with his wife and is nearly pushed out of his home and into a nursing facility before balloons take his house away and off to South America.
The reality of balloon men — they always seem to be men — may hold less drama than fiction, even though Lawnchair Larry also inspired a musical. One of this weekend’s balloon men, Kent Couch, told Reuters, “I am a God-fearing man, a believer in Jesus Christ. But I don’t consider cluster balloon flight death-defying. When people say that, it kind of just eggs me on.”
“Balloon flight is really quite simple.” he added. “You have 1,400 pounds of lift in the balloons, and 1,350 pounds of weight and ballast. What goes up must come down.”
Balloon flight is really quite simple. Balloon men are another story.