Balloons. They look so harmless, don’t they. Don’t be fooled. (Photo credit: Marilee Macilroy/Pexels)

Balloons. They look so harmless, don’t they. Don’t be fooled. (Photo credit: Marilee Macilroy/Pexels)

The Editor’s Desk: My beautiful balloon

Right now might not be the best time to take to the skies in a homemade balloon

Balloons. They’re harmless, right? Bright and colourful and fun, capable of being stuck to walls with just a little friction, or twisted into amazing shapes, or filled with helium and used as decorations.

They have a rich tradition in children’s books and films. Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, and James in James and the Giant Peach are all pulled aloft by balloons; the villainous Sir Hiss (a snake) in Disney’s Robin Hood gets trapped inside one; Basil in The Great Mouse Detective harnesses a number of them to pursue the dastardly Rattigan; and of course they memorably lift an entire house in the animated film Up.

Balloons have also been used, largely for comedy purposes, in entertainment aimed at adults, where hapless people find themselves (or someone else) inadvertently heading skyward because they’re holding too many balloons filled with helium. Lest you think this is artistic license, and could not possibly happen in real life, I direct you to Larry Walters, aka “Lawnchair Larry”, who in 1982 made a 45-minute flight in a homemade craft made of an ordinary patio chair and 43 helium-filled weather balloons. He only intended to go up about 100 feet, but overestimated the number of balloons needed and rapidly rose to a height of 16,000 feet. He was spotted by two commercial aircraft and entered controlled airspace near Long Beach Airport in California, where he began shooting at some of the balloons with a pellet gun he had brought with him in order to descend and land.

Although he survived the trip, things did not go entirely as planned: Walters accidentally dropped the pellet gun before he could shoot enough balloons for a controlled landing (or as controlled a landing as one can have when your craft is a lawnchair strapped to balloons). Cables dangling from the balloons eventually became entangled with a power line, which broke and caused a 20-minute blackout in the surrounding area.

Walters eventually landed, unharmed, and was promptly arrested. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy was reported to have said “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that, but he doesn’t.” Walters was eventually fined $4,000 for violations under the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations, including operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.” He appealed, and the fine was reduced to $1,500.

Ah, 1982; simpler times indeed. If Walters (or anyone else) tried that stunt today, the outcome could well be a lot more serious, given the spate of shoot downs of balloons (or balloon-like objects) in the skies over North America in recent days. As a result, balloons are seemingly everywhere, and they’re no longer just harmless fun or an indication of comedy hi-jinks. They are also (sorry, UFO enthusiasts) not evidence of aliens among us, a point that had to be made by the White House Press Secretary during a briefing session.

As a child, I was drawn to books about strange things, whether that be the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Yeti, Stonehenge, the pyramids, the Nazca Lines, or anything else that could have the words “unexplained”, “mysterious”, “baffling”, or “puzzling” applied to them. Along with the excitement of reading about these things, however, there was a healthy dose of scepticism; never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d see the day when a spokesperson for the United States government had to in all seriousness explain that objects being shot down by military jets were not, in fact, UFOs.

What, precisely, they were remains to be seen. What we do know, however, is that now is probably not the best time to pull a Lawnchair Larry and experiment with helium balloons: a power line and a fine might be the least of your problems.

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