Darwin Awards

It's an annual honor given to the person who did the gene pool the biggest service by killing themselves in the most extraordinarily stupid way. Last year's winner was the fellow who was killed by a Coke machine which toppled over on top of him as he was attempting to tip a free soda out of it.

Nominee of 1996

The Arizona Highway Patrol came upon a pile of smoldering metal embedded into the side of a cliff rising above the road at the apex of a curve. The wreckageresembled the site of an airplane crash, but it was a car. The type of car was unidentifiable at the scene. The lab finally figured out what it was and what had happened.

It seems that a guy had somehow gotten hold of a JATO unit (Jet Assisted Take Off - actually a solid fuel rocket) that is used to give heavy military transport planes an extra "push" for taking off from short airfields. He had driven his Chevy Impala out into the desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. Then he attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, got up some speed and fired off the JATO!

The facts as best as could be determined are that the operator of the 1967 Impala hit JATO ignition at a distance of approximately 3.0 miles from the crash site. This was established by the prominent scorched and melted asphalt at that location. The JATO, if operating properly, would have reached maximum thrust within 5 seconds, causing the Chevy to reach speeds well in excess of 350 mph and continuing at full power for an additional 20-25 seconds. The driver, soon to be pilot, most likely would have experienced G-forces usually reserved for dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners, basically causing him to become insignificant for the remainder of the event. However, the automobile remained on the straight highway for about 2.5 miles (15-20) seconds before the driver applied and completely melted the brakes, blowing the tires and leaving thick rubber marks on the road surface, then becoming airborne for an additional 1.4 miles and impacting the cliff face at a height of 125 feet leaving a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.

From personal email, June 1996

Nominee of 1997

You'll recall a Darwin award from not too long ago where a guy decided to strap a cargo plane rocket booster to his car to see how fast it would go, and ended up hitting a cliff several hundred feet in the air [see above, Ed.]. Here's one more. This story was clipped from the recent Darwin awards, which people get for doing something incredibly stupid. True stories. Here's the winner: Larry Walters is among the relatively few who have actually turned their dreams into reality. His story is true, as hard as you may find it to believe . . . Larry was a truck driver, but his lifelong dream was to fly. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, poor eyesight disqualified him. So when he finally left the service, he had to satisfy himself with watching others fly the fighter jets that crisscrossed the skies over his backyard. As he sat there in his lawn chair, he dreamed about the magic of flying. Then one day, Larry had an idea. He went down to the local Army-Navy surplus store and bought forty-five weather balloons, and several tanks of helium. These were not your brightly colored party balloons, these were heavy-duty spheres measuring more than four feet across when fully inflated.

Back in his yard, Larry used straps to attach the balloons to his lawn chair, the kind you might have in your backyard. He anchored the chair to the bumper of his jeep, and inflated the balloons with helium. Then he packed a few sandwiches and drinks, and a loaded BB gun, figuring he could pop a few balloons when it was time to return to earth. His preparations complete, Larry sat in his chair and cut the anchoring cord. His plan was to lazily float into the sky, and eventually back to terra firma. But things didn't quite work out that way. When Larry cut the cord, he didn't float lazily up; he shot up as if fired from a cannon! Nor did he go up a couple hundred feet. He climbed and climbed until he finally leveled off at eleven thousand feet! At that height, he could hardly risk deflating any of the balloons, lest he unbalance the load and really experience flying. So he stayed up there, sailing around for fourteen hours, totally at a loss about how to get down.

Eventually, Larry drifted into the approach corridor for Los Angeles International Airport. A Pan Am pilot radioed the tower about passing a guy in a lawn chair at eleven thousand feet, with a gun in his lap. . . now there's a conversation I would have given anything to have heard! LAX is right on the ocean, and you may know that at nightfall, the winds on the coast begin to change. So, as dusk fell, Larry began drifting out to sea. At that point, the Navy dispatched a helicopter to rescue him, but the rescue team had a hard time getting to him because the draft from their propeller kept pushing his home-made contraption farther and farther away. Eventually, they were able to hover above him and drop a rescue line, with which they gradually hauled him back to safety. As soon as Larry hit the ground, he was arrested. But as he was led away in handcuffs, a television reporter called out, Sir, why'd you do it? Larry stopped, eyed the man, then replied nonchalantly, "A man can't just sit around!

Thanks to Bernard David (bernard.david@deboeck.be) for mailing me the above.

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