One minute, President Barack Obama was on the television, speaking about the rebirth of New Orleans, the usual array of citizenry behind him. In the next, he had been shoved aside by a live breaking Grimm’s fairy tale. A rambunctious 6-year-old boy may have climbed into a homemade helium balloon, now floating so prettily 7,000 feet above Colorado toward the heavens, at the mercy of the winds.
For three hours on a workaday Thursday, a mesmerized America watched this shiny silvery disc spin slowly against a brilliant blue sky with puffy white clouds. Emergency vehicles began trailing the balloon over two counties. The Air Force was contacted. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded some planes. And the gripped nation wondered: Was the boy in the balloon? Had he already fallen out? At last, the balloon floated down – a safe landing! – 50 miles from the Fort Collins home where it had been tethered.
There was no boy. And then, two hours later, he emerged from the attic, where he had been hiding in fear.
The boy’s father, Richard Heene, said the family was tinkering with the balloon Thursday and that he scolded Falcon – the perfect fairy-tale name – for getting inside a compartment on the craft. He said Falcon’s brother had seen him there before it took off and that’s why they thought he was in there when it launched. But the boy had fled after the scolding and was never in the balloon during its two-hour, 50-mile journey.
“I yelled at him. I’m really sorry I yelled at him,” Heene said as he hugged his son during a news conference Thursday night.
“I was in the attic, and he scared me because he yelled at me,” Falcon said. “That’s why I went in the attic.”
Falcon is the youngest of three boys who seem to have the kind of escapades few boys do these days. They live in Fort Collins with their parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, who both have made appearances in a YouTube music video in which the boys starred. Mom rocked it out on guitar.
On that music video, these are just the sort of boys who might hop a boxcar, who would figure out how to make the toilet explode, in a life where making a flying-saucer balloon with your storm-chasing, publicity-seeking dad would seem a matter of course. The Heene house was an adventureland. The family had appeared earlier this year on “Wife Swap,” the ABC reality show where two mothers switch households for several days and never fail to come away aghast at how other people live. On their episode: a risk-taking scientist swaps his wife with a safety-obsessed family.
Heene is an amateur scientist fascinated with the mysteries of the natural world, he says on his Myspace page. In 2005, he “flew into Hurricane Wilma to take magnetic field measurements,” just an ordinary family vacation for the Heenes, from the looks of it in a Denver television station report also uploaded to YouTube, and “this year I rode a motorcycle into a mesocyclone.”
His former business partner told ABC on Thursday that Heene “loved those boys dearly” but often put them in danger.
The trio had been playing out back with the balloon, when one of the boys saw Falcon climb into a box, attached with pegs, on the bottom of the balloon.
Neighbor Bob Licko heard a commotion when he was leaving his house and saw two boys on the roof with a camera, he told the Associated Press. “One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air.”
The professionals moved in. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was contacted. The FAA began tracking the balloon to help authorities and avoid midair conflicts.
The Colorado balloon was relatively small and homemade. “It’s difficult to know where to start,” said Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. “Was it even a certified aircraft? Obviously, it didn’t have a certified pilot on board. It’s hard to figure out how many rules got broken here.”