FORT COLLINS, Colo. — A 6-year-old boy was found hiding in a cardboard box in his family’s garage attic Thursday after being feared aboard a homemade helium balloon that hurtled 50 miles through the sky on live television.
The discovery marked a bizarre end to a saga that started when the giant silvery balloon floated away from the family’s yard Thursday morning, sparking a frantic rescue operation that involved military helicopters and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
But Sheriff Jim Alderden turned to reporters during a news conference and gave a thumbs up and said 6-year-old Falcon Heene is “at the house.” “Apparently he’s been there the whole time,” he said.
The boy’s father, Richard Heene, said the family was tinkering with the balloon Thursday and that he scolded Falcon for getting inside a compartment on the craft. He said Falcon’s brother had seen him inside the compartment before it took off and that’s why they thought he was in there when it launched.
But the boy fled to the attic at some point after the scolding and was never in the balloon during its two-hour, 50-mile journey through two counties. “I yelled at him. I’m really sorry I yelled at him,” Heene said as he hugged his son during a news conference.
“I was in the attic and he scared me because he yelled at me,” Falcon said. “That’s why I went in the attic.”
Richard Heene adamantly denied the notion that the whole thing was a big publicity stunt. “That’s horrible after the crap we just went through. No.”
The flying saucer-like craft tipped precariously at times before gliding to the ground in a field. With the child nowhere in sight, investigators searched the balloon’s path. Several people reported seeing something fall from the craft while it was in the air, and yellow crime-scene tape was placed around the home.
But in the end, the boy apparently was in the garage the whole time, even as investigators scoured the house and neighborhood for any sign of him.
Neighbor Bob Licko, 65, said he was leaving home when he heard commotion in the backyard of the family. He said he saw two boys on the roof with a camera, commenting about their brother.
“One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air,” Licko said.
Licko said the boy’s mother seemed distraught and that the boy’s father was running around the house. The Poudre School District in Fort Collins, where the boys attend, did not have classes for elementary schools Thursday because of a teacher work day.
The boys’ parents are storm chasers who appeared twice in the ABC reality show “Wife Swap,” most recently in March.
“When the Heene family aren’t chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm,” according to the show.
In a 2007 interview with the Denver Post, Richard Heene described becoming a storm chaser after a tornado ripped off a roof where he was working as a contractor and said he once flew a plane around Hurricane Wilma’s perimeter in 2005.
Pursuing bad weather was a family activity with the children coming along as the father sought evidence to prove his theory that rotating storms create their own magnetic fields.
Although Richard said he has no specialized training, they had a computer tracking system in their car and a special motorcycle.
While the balloon was airborne, Colorado Army National Guard sent a UH-58 Kiowa helicopter and was preparing to send a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. They also were working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to weigh it down.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much the search operation cost. Capt. Troy Brown said the Black Hawk helicopter was in the air for nearly three hours, and the Kiowa helicopter was airborne for about one hour. The Black Hawk costs about $4,600 an hour to fly, and the Kiowa is $700 an hour, Brown said.
Col. Chris Petty, one of the pilots aboard the Black Hawk, said he was thrilled the boy was OK.
Asked what he would say to the 6-year-old if he saw him, Petty said: “I’m really glad you’re alive, I’m very thankful, but I’d sure like to know the rest of the story.”
The episode led to a brief shutdown of northbound departures from one of the nation’s busiest airports, said a controller at the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar center in Longmont, Colo. FAA canceled all northbound takeoffs between 1 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. MDT, said Lyle Burrington, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative at the center. The balloon was about 15 miles northwest of the airport at that time.
Before the departure shutdown, controllers had been vectoring planes taking off in that direction away from the balloon, Burrington said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency tracked the balloon through reports from pilots.
Neighbor Lisa Eklund described seeing the balloon pass.
“We were sitting eating, out looking where they normally shoot off hot air balloons. My husband said he saw something. It went over our rooftop. Then we saw the big round balloonish thing, it was spinning,” she said.
“By the time I saw it, it traveled pretty fast,” she said.
The balloon landed on its own in a dirt field. Sheriff’s deputies secured it to keep it in place, even tossing shovelfuls of dirt on one edge.
Jason Humbert saw the balloon land. He said he had gotten a call from his mother in Texas who told him about the balloon. He said he was in a field checking on an oil well when he found himself surrounded by police who had been chasing the balloon, which came to a rest 12 miles northeast of Denver International Airport.
“It looked like an alien spaceship you see in those old, old movies. You know, those black-and-white ones. It came down softly. I asked a police officer if the boy was OK, and he said there was no one in it,” Humbert said.