Only one family can claim “Balloon Boy” as their own.
That’s the moniker given to Falcon Heene in October 2009 when he was just 6 years old.
On October 15, 2009, 6-year-old Falcon Heene, aka the Balloon Boy, became the source of a wild goose chase that took Colorado authorities over both the land and air space of northern Colorado. After his parents, Richard and Mayumi, frantically alerted local police that their son was trapped in a balloon floating up to 7,000 feet above ground, the world watched in horror as the desperate search for the missing child dragged on for over four hours.
Even President Obama had got dumped from a live broadcast in New Orleans to track the supersized Jiffy Pop bag floating over Colorado.
The story immediately drew a swarm of media attention — after all, it isn’t every day that news crews cover a runaway UFO-like balloon potentially carrying a 6-year-old boy. But with the enormous influx of attention also came suspicions that the whole ordeal was nothing more than a hoax, one that Falcon’s parents hoped would simply garner them their 15 minutes of fame.
It was the balloon America couldn’t take its eyes off—floating out of control in the Colorado sky, purportedly carrying a six-year-old boy inside. Cable news speculated on the child’s odds of survival. It was one of the first breaking news events to unfold on the internet as much as TV, with people on Twitter chronicling the balloon’s every movement.
Millions of people sat glued to their TVs, watching a silver, saucer-shaped balloon float through the sky. The media was reporting that a six-year-old boy, Falcon Heene, was inside the balloon, in danger for his life as it drifted out of control. After several hours, the balloon landed a few miles from Denver International Airport, but the boy was nowhere to be found. There were fears he had fallen out.
The story itself was an epic, full of twists and turns. By the end of the day, everyone had learned that Balloon Boy had never been inside the balloon, that he had been home all along, hiding in an attic. By the end of the week, people had learned that his unscrupulous parents had probably staged the entire thing as a stunt to stoke interest in a possible reality show. Today, the Balloon Boy saga is remembered, if at all, as a weird artifact from a mildly simpler time, a moment when the media gatekeepers were briefly and harmlessly fooled by a particularly cunning specimen of indigenous American fame whore. They were tricked; they laughed it off; they learned nothing. It happens.
For hours, people around the world fixated on his fate — fearing he’d floated as high as 7,000 feet in a massive helium balloon resembling a flying saucer. It landed 90 miles from the family’s home in Fort Collins, Colorado, with no Falcon inside.
That evening, around 6 p.m., it emerged that Falcon Heene had never even left his house, much less the ground. In fact, he was found in the attic of his home, where he had fallen asleep in a box after playing with his toys.
His discovery ended a frantic effort to save him. It also started legal woes for his parents, both of whom served time in jail after a story that started to unravel during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Wolf Blitzer of CNN had summed up the nation’s unrestrained joy upon learning that the imperiled boy had never been in any peril whatsoever: “All of us are so excited that little Falcon is fine.”
Then came even better news. Little Falcon revealed to Blitzer that his family “did this for the show.”
Certainly the “balloon boy” incident is a reflection of our time — much as the radio-induced “War of the Worlds” panic dramatized America’s jitters on the eve of World War II, or the national preoccupation with the now-forgotten Congressman Gary Condit signalled America’s pre-9/11 drift into escapism and complacency in the summer of 2001. But to see what “balloon boy” says about 2009, you have to look past the sentimental moral absolutes. You have to muster some sympathy for the devil of the piece, the Bad Dad. And you can’t grant blanket absolution to those in the American audience who smugly blame Heene and television exclusively for the entire embarrassing episode.
It would be lovely, for instance, to believe that cable audiences doubled in size that afternoon because they were rooting for little Falcon’s welfare. But many of those viewers were driven by the same bloodlust that spawns rubberneckers at every highway accident: the hope of witnessing the graphic remains of a crash, not a soft landing.
“They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” the local sheriff, Jim Alderden, when he alleged that “balloon boy” was a hoax. His words could stand as the epitaph for an era.
It’s a great story, even if it’s not real.
At 2:42 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2009, CNN afternoon anchor Kyra Phillips interrupted a live broadcast by President Obama to bring viewers a breaking story as alarming as it was irresistible. A large silver helium balloon had broken loose and was racing through the windy skies of Colorado—with a small boy trapped inside. By any journalistic criteria, a little boy trapped inside a runaway experimental balloon counts as a good story; by the reductive standards of cable news, which prize emotional simplicity and evocative imagery above all, the incident must have seemed like the greatest story of all time. Cable-news scientists in a hermetically sealed clean room could not have created a more perfect CNN segment. CNN vowed to stay with the story until Balloon Boy was brought safely home.
On a Thursday morning in Colorado, the Heene family was “experimenting” with the launch of a “3D low-altitude vehicle” — a large, silver balloon measuring 20 feet across and 5 feet high that closely resembled an extraterrestrial spaceship. Constructed of plastic tarps, aluminum poles, duct tape and string, the balloon also contained what the family called a “battery compartment,” which in turn, the family claimed, contained Falcon.
The flying saucer-shaped silver balloon owned by the Heenes looked to be carrying about 1,500 cubic feet of helium, Freeman estimates. “Some experts are saying that it could not have carried anyone over 70 pounds,” he says. “You figure that it takes about 1,000 cubic feet of helium to give you 40 pounds of lift.”
The aircraft – covered in silver foil and about 20 feet long and 5 feet wide – moved rapidly through the sky, reaching heights of 6,000 feet. But this contraption was unlike the hot air balloons that are seen at festivals, experts say. Hot air balloons generally have 70,000 cubic feet of volume, are seven stories high, and can carry 760 to 800 pounds, or about four adults.
His father, Richard Heene, an amateur scientist and storm chaser, kept a 20-foot-long experimental balloon—sorry, a “3-D low altitude vehicle”—tied up and inflated in the yard, as one does. Though his father had scolded him for playing in the contraption, Falcon nevertheless remained drawn to the balloon. This boy was a real Balloon Boy, you might say, because around noon on that fatefully dumb day, Falcon’s older brother told his father that the younger child had climbed into the balloon and it had come unmoored.
According to one of Falcon’s brothers, the 6-year-old had climbed into the balloon immediately before its launch. The plan, the family said, was to simply get the balloon up in the air, but keep it tethered to the ground so as to prevent it from floating away. But apparently, someone “forgot” to secure the contraption, and it went up, up, and away.
Then, in a strange move, rather than immediately phoning the police, Richard Heene called local news station KUSA-TV, and asked them to send a news helicopter. Initially, the station director refused, telling Heene, “I don’t believe you.”
Taken aback by the request, the news director at the station, KUSA-TV, Patti Dennis, said she called back and told Mr. Heene flatly, “I don’t believe you.” Still skeptical when Mr. Heene put a police officer on the phone to verify the story, Ms. Dennis added, “I told the deputy that I didn’t believe he was real, either.”
Eventually satisfied by the local police’s report of a missing child, she dispatched the helicopter to the skies over Fort Collins, Colo., where the helium-filled balloon had taken flight, jump-starting an extraordinary afternoon of television coverage.
No one seemed skeptical. The story spread from local to national news faster than a sprinting llama; CNN and the other cable news networks carried the yarn for a hours, teasing every possible bit of data and pathos out of the errant aircraft. What kind of balloon was it: hot air or helium?
Why did you think he was in the balloon?
Bradford Heene (son): Because he was in it like four times throughout the day, and he liked the flying saucer, he thought it was cool. And when he went missing and it started floating up, it was like, oh my God, no way. It started floating up, like, “Oh shit.”
Did you call the police?
Richard Heene:Well, I was certified level one to launch a high-powered rocket. And when you do that, you have to call the FAA if you launch 1,000 feet. So my first reaction, having that training, was to call the FAA…because I’m thinking, you know, a plane could hit it or something like that. Maybe they have helicopters.…And then they told me I had to call 911. So I call 911. In the meantime while I’m on that phone call, Mayumi was trying to find a helicopter. And her first reaction…I guess came from watching newsreels of car chases. So she called one of the stations to get a helicopter.
At 3 p.m., CNN’s Rick Sanchez joined CNN afternoon anchor Kyra Phillips, and ratcheted up the drama. “I want to grab through that screen, reach through that screen and grab that thing and bring it down to earth,” he asserted. Minutes later, Phillips announced a terrible development: The sheriff’s office feared the boy might have already fallen out of the balloon. “Boy, I will tell you, Kyra, that’s heartbreaking news,” said Sanchez. “Hopefully, it’s wrong for some reason. Sometimes, in news, all we can do is hope that the information we get is wrong.”
Finally, about an hour after CNN picked up the story, the balloon landed near Colorado Springs. “If you, uh, if you are predisposed to do so, and you want to say a little prayer … you might wanna do so now, because this 6-year-old boy is about 100 feet from the ground,” said Sanchez. Rescue workers surrounded the craft—and discovered there was no Balloon Boy to be found in the Balloon Boy balloon.
What a twist! The interplay between Phillips and Sanchez at the moment of the reveal was priceless:
Sanchez: I’ll tell you, this is one of those stories that really will tell itself shortly here. The picture …
Phillips: Rick, I don’t know if anybody is in there.
Sanchez: … describe it for us.
Phillips: They would be going right in.
Sanchez: I’ll tell you, it’s, it’s, you can only hope he’s in there. But right now, I, I have not seen them go in, and, uh … I have not seen them go in and get the little boy out. It doesn’t even look like they’re making an effort to—I am confused.
Sanchez wasn’t the only one. Had Balloon Boy really fallen out? Had he ever been in there at all? The Colorado Air National Guard sent a Blackhawk helicopter to scour the countryside for any sign of the child. “Right now, a search is underway for a 6-year-old boy who may or may not have climbed into a homemade helium balloon,” announced Wolf Blitzer at the top of the 4 p.m. hour. Just over two hours later, we learned that Balloon Boy was hiding inside a box in the attic of the family garage. “I played with my toys and took a nap,” he told reporters.
Cable news anchors had suspended skepticism in favour of spectacular images of the balloon as it glided across northern Colorado and landed in a dusty field about 60 miles away, and the ratings for CNN and the Fox News Channel doubled for the duration of the spectacle. The ensuing spectacle mesmerized and terrified the masses. Newly equipped with smartphones and social media, the worldwide public tracked the two-hour flight of the child immediately deemed “Balloon Boy.” His alleged journey spanned just over 60 miles at altitudes up to 7,000 feet.
So enthralled were newscasters and the public alike by the story that the National Guard was dispatched, and several counties became involved in the widespread search. The balloon stayed in flight for over 90 minutes, and when it finally touched down, there was no Falcon to be found. This prompted another cause for concern, as one deputy reported that he saw an object fall from the balloon before landing — but this search also proved unfruitful.
So where was Falcon?
At home, in the attic. Where he had been the whole time.
Mr. Heene said that his two other sons had been helping tether the balloon on that Thursday, but that Falcon was not in the backyard at the time. Falcon told reporters he had been hiding because his father had yelled at him earlier for playing in the balloon.
When the balloon lifted off, Mr. Heene said, his 10-year-old son, Bradford, told him that Falcon could be inside, prompting the emergency reaction.
After Falcon was found, the family lingered for nearly an hour taking questions from a mass of reporters who spilled onto the front lawn. Mr. Heene took business cards from eager TV producers while his children played in the yard.
But even before Falcon was found hours later hiding inside a box in the Heene family home, incredulous observers were asking: Is it all a hoax?
Speculation that the runaway balloon was a publicity stunt by the family increased Thursday night after Falcon, in an interview on CNN, was asked why he had hid from his family for five hours — in the garage attic, the one place investigators did not search — while local and federal authorities scoured three counties, fearing he had fallen from the balloon.
On the night of the Balloon Boy incident, Wolf Blitzer hosted the Heenes for an interview. In it, Blitzer accidentally broke some actual news: Asked by his father why he had hidden in the garage attic and ignored searchers’ cries, Falcon replied, “Um … you guys said … that, um … we did this for the show.” (“Man … ” said his father. “No … ?” said his mother.)
Now, it’s hard to know entirely what to take from the comment, which Blitzer inexplicably didn’t follow up on immediately (and which seemed to leave father Richard Heene awkwardly flustered).
It took about 30 minutes for Blitzer, God bless him, to follow up on that startling admission and ask Heene what his son had meant. Heene replied by repeatedly saying that he was “appalled” that Blitzer would ask that question. (“I was just grateful that he is just fine,” Blitzer crumbled. “You have a beautiful family there.”) This is what world-class liars do: They go big with their lies, and then bluster loudly when they’re called out on them—even when the person calling them out is barely even calling them out!
Later, toward the end of a lengthy interview, Blitzer asked Richard Heene to ask his son, who could not hear Blitzer, what he meant by the comment. Heene briefly suggested Falcon might have been talking about the family’s two appearances on the ABC show, “Wife Swap.”
In 2014 Falcon was asked:
Falcon, do you remember what you were talking about, or why you said that, if it wasn’t for a show?
Falcon: Well, yeah, there was this Chinese guy. He was walking up to me, this guy with a video camera, and he’s like, “Hey, do you mind showing me how you got in the attic?” I was like, yeah, why not, so I showed him how I got in the attic. I showed him that there was a lot of rat poop up there.…I thought they were asking me about that Chinese dude’s show.
The network wasn’t wholly at fault, either. The balloon was in the air. The boy’s family said he was in it. The boy was nowhere to be found at home. Who can blame CNN for going with it? It’s hard to report accurately on a story when the prime mover of that story is blatantly lying to you. It’s especially hard to report accurately when you carry the news as it happens, when you outsource the contextualization of the images you broadcast.
Doubt arose almost as soon as Falcon was found. For one thing, the Heenes’ choice to first notify a news station rather than authorities raised a few eyebrows. Secondly, given the size and the construction of the balloon, it seemed highly unlikely that a 6-year-old would fit, much less be able to be carried, by the balloon over such a long distance and at such a high altitude. And considering the Heenes had made the balloon themselves, many suspected that the family knew exactly what the balloon was and was not capable of doing.
Furthermore, a home video released the day after the incident that showed the entire launch and initial panic also displayed Richard Heene carefully checking the compartment were Falcon was said to be hidden. And then, of course, there was the family’s questionable background.
The Heenes, particularly Mayumi and Richard, were no strangers to television at the time of the incident. In fact, they had appeared on ABC’s Wife Swap twice before, the second time as fan favourites. Then there was also Richard’s reputation as something of a mad scientist and a storm chase — one who questioned Hillary Clinton’s identity as a “reptilian” and took his sons with him into hurricanes and other storms.
Before the balloon hoax, the Heenes had also (unsuccessfully) pitched a show to TLC, believing their curious interests to be the stuff of great reality television. TLC apparently disagreed, and the Heenes chose to make headlines in a different way.
But authorities didn’t buy it, and just four days later, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden called the incident “absolutely … a hoax.” Deeming it a “publicity stunt,” Alderden told reporters that the Heenes had constructed the entire story and situation “with hopes of better maneuvering themselves for a reality TV show.”
One year later, Richard and Mayumi Heene were sentenced to a combined total of 110 days of jail and eight years of probation, a sentence that some thought to be far too lenient. David Lane, Heene’s own attorney, estimated that the hoax cost the Larimer County District Attorney’s Office $46,000, which included overtime for officers, the two helicopters that were used in the search, and various other costs associated with the multiple counties involved.
Mayumi Heene reportedly told authorities just a couple days after the initial scare that she knew all along where her son was, but Richard Heene still insists that it was never a hoax (though he apologized for it during his sentencing).
According to a copy of a search warrant affidavit, Mayumi told investigators she and her husband lied to authorities and knew their son Falcon was at home as rescue teams tracked the balloon believing the boy was inside.
“The motive for the fabricated story was to make the Heene family more marketable for future media interest,” the affidavit states.
The document also says the Heenes, who had starred in the reality television show “Wife Swap,” had devised the hoax about two weeks before and had instructed their three children to lie to authorities and the media.
The Heenes had harboured television aspirations for years. “He wanted the press to see his flying saucer, I’m sure,” said Sheree Silver, a Florida psychic who lived with the Heenes for an episode of “Wife Swap.” But Ms. Silver rejected the notion of a publicity stunt, saying, “I can’t believe he would do something like that.”
In the wake of the incident, Web users pored over Mr. Heene’s old YouTube videos, including ones that claim to show proof of life on Mars and that ask whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is a “reptilian.” His scientific obsessions were no secret in his quiet, residential neighbourhood.
Richard Heene is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where “news,” “reality” television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking. Norman Lear, about the only prominent American to express any empathy for Falcon’s father, vented on The Huffington Post, calling out CNN, MSNBC, Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS alike for their role in “creating a climate that mistakes entertainment for news.” This climate, he argued, “all but seduces a Richard and Mayumi Heene into believing they are — even if what they dream up to qualify is a hoax — entitled to their 15 minutes.”
None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.
Editor & Publisher noted that “only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of [a] boy in it were ‘unverified’ and raise the possibility of a hoax.”
Experts and commentators also criticized the media’s vetting process, questioned the separation between journalism and reality television and raised concerns about the exploitation of children for news stories. Robert Thompson, of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that the incident “was a wake-up call to the media but it’s a wake-up call that every single one of us is going to sleep through.” Thompson blamed technology rather than the media for the problem: “There are two technological phenomena driving this—one is television satellite trucks and the ability to broadcast from anywhere and two is an unlimited number of platforms to place this stuff.”
The Heenes did not land their reality television show, but otherwise they got what they wanted. News organizations write retrospectives about the story. Journalists sometimes ask, “Where are they now?” and I bet you care about the answer. So what are the Heenes up to now? It will not surprise you to learn that they moved to Florida. It will also not surprise you to learn that Richard Heene now claims the hoax was not actually a hoax, which is exactly the sort of thing a hoaxster would say.
Balloon Boy, whose real name is Falcon Heene, is now 13 years old. He and his brothers—Ryo, 15, and Bradford, 17—tour Florida these days as a metal band called Heene Boyz. Their third album includes the song, “Balloon Boy No Hoax.”
“Say this for the Heenes … ” began a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times, “they are persistent.” Balloon Boys always are. The air is full of them now, and they’re never going away.
Finally, what did Falcon mean when he said, “We did it for the show”? Whatever he meant, he certainly gave us one.