10 Extraordinarily Mad Do-It-Yourselfers

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Don’t try this at home. While this may seem to be a standard disclaimer, it is perhaps especially applicable to the field of aviation, nuclear reactors and other high risk ventures. Around the world, certain unusually intrepid, some might say crazy birds have taken it upon themselves to take ingenuity and recklessness to brave new heights. In this account, we explore some of the most bizarre, and sometimes blatantly illegal or otherwise ill-fated attempts to reach the clouds from a lawnchair, set up a home nuclear station, and other grand slams in the face sensibility… or “do not try this at home.”

10. Lawnchair Larry

Being a couch potato may not get much done, but sitting back in a lawnchair while doing anything but actually relaxing may just get you some serious, if ill-advised media attention. That is, if your lawnchair is jury-rigged with balloons and thus equipped to launch skyward. American truck driver Larry Walters achieved such notoriety for drifting into the airspace of the Los Angeles International Airport and reaching altitudes of 15,000 feet in 1982. And what was Mr. Larry Walters piloting? A lawnchair, fitted with a quantity of 45 weather balloons, to create a very primitive and very scary homemade airship. The results were fearsome.

The balloons rose far faster than Larry imagined, but he waited until he had reached a great height before he started shooting the balloons at a graduated rate with the pellet gun he brought “onboard.”  Dangerously, some of his balloons struck power lines on the way down, causing a power outage for 20 minutes. Most ironic was his answer upon arrest, considering that the stunt was done in a chair, explaining that “a man cannot just sit around.”  Soon released but fined, Lawnchair Larry (as he became known for his little escapade) was lucky to have made it down with little more than being a little chilled from the altitude, and quite scared.

9. The Nuclear Boy Scout

While countless kids try model rocketry, archery or rock collecting as hobbies, David Charles Hahn’s occupation as a teenager was a little more… reactive. His atomic aspirations led him to spend massive quantities of time cooped up in a shed next to masses of radioactive nuclear materials as he worked towards the grand goal of building a reactor in his yard. Does idiot come to mind? Well, we cannot be sure if his mental difficulties later in life were the cause of his poor judgement, or the result of the radiation poisoning. We will never know, since he refused medical evaluation for some reason.  

Becoming known as the “Nuclear Boy Scout,” Hahn amassed nuclear waste, clock parts, ore and other sources of radioactive material and began building what amounted to a small nuclear reactor in the backyard shed of his family home. Posing as a university professor, Hahn contacted nuclear organizations including the Nuclear Radiation Commission to get juicy tidbits on how to best set off nuclear reactions. Following his arrest, the property, including the shed where the experiments were conducted had to be cleaned up as a Superfund site, with radiation levels from the young man’s many experiments conducted without proper safety measures far exceeding safe levels.

8. The Flat Earth Rocketeer

Steampunk might be a newer concept, but when real life steampunkery gone far, far too far marries flat-earth fanaticism, the results can be a little explosive as they head skyward. The monumentally bogus theory that the Earth is flat still hangs on the far-out fringe despite being unequivocally disproved and easily disprovable by conventional means, such as seeing a mountain fall below the horizon when viewed across a wide strait of water. However, one “Mad” Mike Hughes of California spent years building a real rocket propelled by steam, into which he vertically blasted himself into the atmosphere over the desert in the man-carrying craft.

The purpose of his extensive rocket building ventures is not exactly rocket science, and instead can be attributed to a single goal. Hughes’ rocket works center on the “see for yourself” model of determining facts rather than looking to the obvious. Despite coming close to death, Hughes deployed parachutes from the rocket and survived, albeit having a rough landing that inflicted some injuries. His conclusion? The rocket with the words “Research” and “Flat Earth” painted on the side did not provide conclusive results. The solution, according to the backyard rocket scientist? More, bigger rockets for a bigger, higher view of the Earth. Gee, if only there were some sort of space agency that could get on that endeavor. 

7. Richard Handl

What is the best thing to do if one finds oneself unemployed? Well, for starters let us consider a few plausible choices. You could, A) find a new job; B) become self-employed; or C) just throw caution to the wind and try to build a bloody nuclear reactor in your apartment. Let’s just say that C) might be the choice to select if you are looking for an expedient trip to a mental health facility in recognition of the obvious sanity and the inherent logic and safety of your idea, or maybe just the nearest hospital for the resulting radiation poisoning.

The choice is not as far out as it seems. One Richard Handl of Sweden decided to fight bordom and become more of a scholar, while certainly being no gentleman, by trying to build a building a nuclear fission reactor in his apartment building to try and split the atom. Once confronted by law enforcement, Handl admitted he was “crazy” to attempt the radioactive experiments, but was also sure to mention that he “had it under control” after buying radioactive material from Germany and over the internet. Those materials included uranium, americum and radium. And how was Handl caught? He checked in with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority to see if his activities were permitted. Ah… not really.

6. Cal Giordano

Some ventures may be subpar, but Cal Giordano of Alaska took things sub-surface with a quirky homemade submarine. And not only is the rather ramshackle machine that this enterprising do-it-yourselfer built designed to function as a submarine, but it is also fitted to be an icebreaker in winter with blade mountings intended to slice through icy obstacles. The prospect of collision with ice while partially submerged might evoke concern, but Giordano intended for the machine to be able to handle whatever the cold waters of Alaska near Juneau could throw at it.

Given that the Alaska-based aqua-maverick fitted the semi-sub together out of a variety of parts, including part of a buoy, nothing less than a propane tank for part of the body, and an outboard boat motor, the machine was rather strange looking and less streamlined than what one might term professionally built submarines. Known as a semi-sub, the machine has planes that angle like tiny wings to force the front of the vessel 8 feet below the surface, while the tail mounted motor remains in operation at the surface with its required access to air. The buoy cockpit sticks out prominently as a rounded form, while an electrically operated snorkel provides air circulation into the cockpit. Not only does the machine function in an aquatic setting — the presence of small wheels allows the craft to be moved on land, minus the requirement to use a trailer.

5. Man-Carrying Drone

Lawnchair Larry would be impressed! Instead of balloons, the much greater but analogous challenge of setting up drones to lift a human is represented in one strange project. The aptly named “Swarm” consists of a multitude of drones wired and held together, under which a seemingly rickety seating and control area is rigged together. The home cooked vision of a drone enthusiast not content to watch drones from the ground, the contraption depends on its legion of tiny propellers to lift a man off the ground.

Capable of flying for 10 minutes on a single charge, the Manned Aerial Vehicle Multirotor Super Drone (as the vehicle is technically described by its creator) weighs 326 pounds, but easily lifts off thanks to the massive quantity of admittedly tiny propellers working in unison. The machine’s propellers are wired to be counter-rotating, stabilizing the craft against the unwieldy forces of torque. Landing skids made of pipes that run below the aircraft in a manner highly reminiscent of a helicopter’s landing gear are central to the design, while a seat in the middle of it all holds the pilot. An inverted, hard, bucket-like component acts as a helmet and apparently shields the pilot should a prop fail.

4. Fritz Unger’s Skyflash

What is the most terrifying way to fly? Possibly, Fritz Unger’s way. The pioneering aviator has been working on tests to make operational an innovative but somewhat rudimentary jetpack device that blasts the pilot thousands of feet into the air with the help of a wing, constructed from plywood in the prototype stages and equipped with a handheld control console that directs computers. The machine would have greater maneuverability and far more power than a hang glider, effectively turning the combination of machine and pilot into a miniature conventional aircraft in function.

In fact, the system might be termed as a “wearable micro-aircraft” rather than simply being a wingsuit. You know, kind of like Falcon from the Avengers movies (and yes, obviously, the comics). The entire flying unit weighs around 50 pounds at the prototype stage, but the machine, in the testing stage following a 2007 project start, is intended to go up to 25,000 feet into the air. And with so much power close at hand, one might be concerned about the strength of the structure or the risk of being burned by nearby hot fuel. Eerily, heat-proof boots form part of the apparatus to allow the pilot to dip the boots into the exhaust to “vector control.” Ah… no thanks.

3. Daniel Boria

Lawnchair Larry was not the only person to get airborne in a lawn chair. A Canadian did it as well, but instead of just doing it for the pleasure of flight, Daniel Boria conceived the stunt as a way to draw attention to his cleaning product supply business. Calgary, Alberta is a fairly open city, located in a part of Canada where prairies form a dominant component of the natural landscape. Such a location, with its sometimes notably windy environment, was where Boria decided to head for the skies as a bid to get attention.

Fortunately he did not have to be cleaned up off the ground in his makeshift craft that included a “$20 dollar lawn chair” plus 100 colorful but enormous rubber helium balloons. However, what Boria failed to achieve in gaining as far as business attention is concerned, he certainly garnered from local law enforcement that was none too happy about the possibility of assorted homebuilt high-flyer parts falling from the clouds. After landing, he was charged with mischief causing danger to life. The reason for the charge? Not his own life, but the concern that the lawn chair could take someone out when the balloons eventually fail following his parachute assisted in-flight abandonment of the craft.

2. Home Helicopter

Helicopters might seem to be the most challenging and even nearly impossible machine to engineer and send airborne from home, but in fact a surprising number of classically constructed but tiny and rather crudely gained helicopters have gained traction. Felix Kambwiri, a resident of the town of Gobede in the African nation of Malawi, close to the country’s capital, Lilongwe, is an enterprising man who has been working diligently to design and build a tiny one person helicopter with a combination of fiberglass, rotors, a seat and pre-owned engine adapted for the job.

A tailor and radio repairman with work experience in welding, Kambwiri became interested in constructing a helicopter after starting to work in welding. His childhood memories of seeing the nation’s president fly in a helicopter sparked his efforts. Regular police visits take place as the machine is, at least at this stage, not supposed to be flown. The engine in the tiny red, blue and white helicopter, that has gradually been taking shape over the hours of careful but sometimes improvised construction work, is just 125 cc; but then again, the single seater helicopter is tiny. So tiny, in fact, that the machine can be started up, rotor blades and all, ominously screaming inside the garage where it is being constructed.

1. Marvin John Heemeyer

Most people might get SWAT encounter notoriety on their rap sheet from barricading themselves in a building or a car in the course of some illegal activity. But for 52-year-old Marvin John Heemeyer of Gransby, Colorado, building a tank was his decision borne of grievance and madness.

Angry at city planning and ordinance decisions that impacted his business goals in a way unfavorable to him, the do-it-yourselfer turned to what some might call a domestic terrorist’s approach. And pre-construction confirms premeditation of the June 4, 2004 attack. On his property, he meticulously constructed a veritable army tank from a modified bulldozer, fitted with steel armor-plating reinforced with sandwiched concrete. The total thickness was one foot. Cameras and firearms were added to the terrifying contraption, which proceeded to bulldoze and blast its way through the town, destroying 13 buildings and causing millions in damage. Propane tanks were fired upon but failed to detonate.

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1 Comment

  1. Thomas Lessman on

    Let’s be fair in #1, the case of Mr Heemeyer and his homemade tank. Its not like he was some psycho who flipped out just because he didn’t get his way in “some business dealings”. Instead, he was a businessman who went psycho after certain members of his city’s council unethically and illegally conspired to destroy his business and take his property from him.

    His final actions, while definitely not recommended (mostly due to damages he caused to people who were innocent, and the fact that it ultimately ended up with his death) serve as a cautionary tale of what can happen when the power of government is corrupted by crooked people and used in ways that are unfair and abusive to other people.

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