Drunken Aviator Lands in City Centre, 1956

In perhaps the greatest ‘hold my beer’ escapade to date, Thomas Fitzpatrick stole a plane to prove he could fly from Jersey to New York in just 15 minutes. Read about how he won his crazy bet.

Bulky sedans rumbled sedately along the right-angled streets, and haggard creatures of the night here and there passed under the patchy street lighting past rows of rectilinear brownstone tenements.

It was the witching hour on St Nics Avenue in New York City’s heart. Of course in the city that never sleeps life still stirred, and it was about to get a serious wake up call.

Jimmy was wiping down the bar waiting for the last of his patrons to stumble out after a long night. The edge of his lips curled up with a wry smile; earlier that night one of his favourite patrons, a gung-ho flyboy named Thomas ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick made a bet that he could fly from New Jersey to New York City in 15 minutes. ‘I’ll land out there to prove it, how ‘bout that?’ slurred Fitz. ‘OK ya crazy, drunken Irishman’ laughed Jimmy ‘Hold my beer, will ya?.’ And, with a leery grin, Fitzpatrick plodded out the door.

Good laughs, thought Jimmy.

That was almost an hour ago. A barking dog out the window broke his reverie and Jimmy looked up to see a late night walker and his dog facing opposite directions; the man was pulled back by his leashed dog.

The mut was staring back up the street and whined, its head tilted with that gaze of rapt concentration only a dog can do. “Come on!” the guy bawled, looking bewildered.

Then Jim detected the sound of an engine, but it was no automobile; it was more of a deep buzz, and it quickly got louder.

That sound was one of a small plane approaching and, crazy as it sounds, Fitzpatrick was making his approach to land the thing on the Avenue.

One or two cars screeched to a halt as the small aircraft buzzed overhead. Bedroom lights flicked on and anyone quick enough caught a fleeting glimpse of Fitzpatrick as he zipped by.

Jimmy slammed the door open in time to witness, mouth agape, the plane touchdown and whizz past his bar before coming to a stop.

So Fitz won the bet after all!

The stolen plane on St Nics Avenue, complete with chalk outline (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)

After leaving the bar, Fitzpatrick had hightailed it 15 miles across the state line to Teterboro Airport and there, stole an aircraft.

What the wager was is unknown but he won his bet and his antics made newspaper headlines. The New York Times called the flight a “feat of aeronautics” and a “fine landing”, and a plane parked in the middle of the street made for quite a sight in the morning.

For his illegal flight, he was fined $100 after the plane’s owner refused to press charges.

Incredibly Fitzpatrick performed the same stunt again in 1958 because in another bar someone questioned the story. For that, he was sentenced to 6 months incarceration, blaming his antics on the “lousy drink

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Lawnchair Larry’s Balloon Flight 1982

To fly is a dream, and every kid imagines acquiring enough helium balloons for a little aerial adventure. Big kid Larry Walters actually pulled off the stunt for real in an epic flight over Los Angeles. Read about how he did it here.

Who hasn’t held a bunch of helium balloons as a kid and imagined the fun they could have if only they could gather enough balloons to lift off, see the world with a bird’s eye view for a brief while before landing again? Larry Walters was one of those kids.

As an adult, he tried to become a pilot but poor eyesight ruled that out, yet the dream to fly remained. Sitting in his backyard one day in Los Angeles, USA he devised a plan. He attached 43 weather balloons to his lawn chair (which he christened ‘Inspiration I’) and filled them with helium.

Perhaps Larry thought the whole endeavour would go like something out of a kid’s movie; he’d float up, enjoy the blissful views, wave at onlookers here and there, then drift down again. And what better than to do so with a nice bite to eat and beer – bliss. 

Suitably kitted out then, and with a pellet gun to shoot the balloons when it was time to descend, his friends cut the cord that anchored him to his jeep. 

What actually happened is he shot into the sky, climbing to 4,900m (16,000 feet) and drifted there for more than 45 minutes, frozen and frightened. He then crossed an aeroplane approach corridor to Long Beach Airport and two commercial jets reported the strange sight.

Eventually Larry gathered the nerve to shoot a few balloons and descended. His balloons caught in a power line, causing a neighbourhood blackout for 20 minutes but he landed unharmed.

Larry attached 43 weather balloons to his lawn chair (groovyhistory.com)

Larry was arrested upon landing and fined $1,500. Talking to reporters, the Police stated: “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.” 

For his part, Larry declared “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.” 

He was awarded the title of ‘At-Risk Survivor’ in the 1993 Darwin Awards but sadly committed suicide the very same year.

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Woman Survives 10,000m Freefall, 1972

Find out how one woman survived a 10,000 metre freefall when her plane was blown out of the sky by terrorists.

It was 2:30pm on the 26 of January, 1972 and Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was at Copenhagen Airport waiting to board a DC 9 aircraft of JAT Flight 367

I saw all the passengers and crew deplane.” She remembered “One man seemed terribly annoyed. It was not only me that noticed him either. I think that was the man who put the bomb in the baggage.”

Airborne ninety minutes later Vesna’s life would be turned upside down and she’d enter the record books in the process.

Vesna was in the back of the aircraft with a food cart when the aforementioned bomb, planted by Croatian Nationalists, went off. It tore through the luggage compartment 10,000m (33,000ft) mid-air, ripping away the tail section. Sadly, the other 27 passengers and crew perished as the plane disintegrated.

Surely the massive plunge to earth was a fatal one, yet Vesna’s fate wasn’t for her to join her late colleagues. Vesna was incredibly fortunate in that, whereas the others on the plane were sucked out of the fuselage, she was pinned inside the tail by the heavy food cart.

The tailpiece plummeted to earth and landed at an angle in a heavily wooded and snow-covered mountainside in Czechoslovakia, which cushioned the impact. Vulović’s physicians later concluded that her history of low blood pressure caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurised and kept her heart from bursting on impact.

Vesna probably didn’t feel incredibly fortunate when she regained consciousness; she had sustained two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured skull. She couldn’t recall the event at all but eventually went on to make a good recovery. Vesna’s 10,000m free-fall without a parachute is a world record.

Image showing how Flight 367 plunged to earth in Czechoslovakia (twitter.com)

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