Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

8 Surprising Facts About James Stewart

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For a good portion of the 20th century, actor James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (1908-1997) was one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Stewart, who was often called upon to embody characters who exhibited a strong moral center, won acclaim for films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Vertigo (1958), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In all, he made more than 80 movies. Take a look at some things you might not know about Stewart’s personal and professional lives.

1. Jimmy Stewart had a degree in architecture.

Acting was not James Stewart’s only area of expertise. Growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store, Stewart had an artistic bent with an interest in music and earned his way into his father’s alma mater, Princeton University. There, he received a degree in architecture in 1932. But pursuing that career seemed tenuous, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, Stewart decided to follow his interest in acting, joining a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts after graduating and rooming with fellow aspiring actor Henry Fonda. After a brief turn on Broadway, he landed a contract with MGM for motion picture work. His film debut, as a cub reporter in The Murder Man, was released in 1935.

2. Jimmy Stewart gorged himself on food so he could serve the country in World War II.

Colonel James Stewart leaves Southampton on board the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth, bound for home in 1945.
Express/Getty Images

Stewart was already established in Hollywood when the United States began preparing to enter World War II. After the draft was introduced in 1940, Stewart received notice that he was number 310 out of a pool of 900,000 annual citizens selected for service. The problem? Stewart was six foot, three inches and a trim 138 pounds—five pounds under the minimum weight for enlistment. So he went home, ate everything he could, and came back to weigh in again. It worked, and Stewart joined the Army Air Corps, later known as the Air Force.

3. Jimmy Stewart demanded to see combat in the war.

Thanks to his interest in aviation, Stewart was already a pilot when he went to war; he received additional flight training but wound up being sidelined for two years stateside even though he kept insisting he be sent overseas to fight. (He filmed a recruitment short film, Winning Your Wings, in 1942, which was screened in theaters in the hopes it could drive enlistment.) Finally, in November 1943, he was dispatched to England, where he participated in more than 20 combat missions over Germany. His accomplishments earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf clusters, among other honors, making him the most decorated actor to participate in the conflict. After the war ended, he returned to a welcome reception in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father had decorated the courthouse to recognize his son’s service. His next major film role was It’s a Wonderful Life.

4. Jimmy Stewart kept his Oscar in a very unusual place.

After winning an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Stewart heard from his father, Alex Stewart. “I hear you won some kind of award,” he told his son. “What was it, a plaque or something?” The elder Stewart suggested he bring it back home to display in the hardware store. The actor did as suggested, and the Oscar remained there for 25 years.

5. Jimmy Stewart starred in two television shows.

Actor James Stewart is pictured in uniform
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a long career in film through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Stewart turned to television. In 1971, he played a college anthropology professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show. The series failed to find an audience, however, so was short-lived. He tried again with Hawkins in 1973, playing a defense lawyer, but that show was also canceled. (Stewart also performed in commercials, including spots for Firestone tires and Campbell’s Soup.)

6. Jimmy Stewart hated one version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

While Stewart had just as much affection for It’s a Wonderful Life as audiences, one alternate version of the film annoyed him. In 1987, he sent a letter to Congress protesting the practice of colorizing It's a Wonderful Life and other films on the premise that it violated what directors like Frank Capra had intended. He described the tinted version as “a bath of Easter egg dye.” Putting a character named Violet in violet-colored costumes, he wrote, was “the kind of obvious visual pun that Frank Capra never would have considered.” Stewart later lobbied against the practice in person.

7. Jimmy Stewart published a book of poetry.

In 1989, Stewart authored Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, a slim volume collecting several of the actor’s verses. Stewart also included anecdotes about how each one was composed. His best known might be “Beau,” about his late dog, which Stewart read to Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance in 1981. By the end, both Stewart and Carson were teary-eyed.

8. Jimmy Stewart has a statue in his hometown.

For Stewart’s 75th birthday in 1983, his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania honored him with a 9-foot-tall bronze statue. Unfortunately, the statue wasn’t totally ready in time for Stewart’s visit, so they presented him with the fiberglass version instead. The bronze statue currently stands in front of the county courthouse, while the fiberglass version was moved into the nearby Jimmy Stewart Museum.

Top 50 Best-Selling Artists of All Time

Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images

Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.

1. The Beatles

American television host Ed Sullivan smiles while standing with British rock group the Beatles on the set of his television variety series, New York, February 9, 1964. Left to right: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Albums sold: 183 million

2. Garth Brooks


Cooper Neill/Getty Images for dcp

Albums sold: 148 million

3. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley is seen playing the guitar in his 1966 film, 'Spinout'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 146.5 million

4. Eagles

The Eagles in concert, "History of the Eagles" tour, Grand Rapids, September 2014. Doolin-Dalton
Rachel Kramer via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Albums sold: 120 million

5. Led Zeppelin


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 111.5 million

6. Billy Joel

Albums sold: 84.5 million

7. Michael Jackson


Getty Images

Albums sold: 84 million

8. Elton John

Elton John plays a concert in 2008.
LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images

Albums sold: 78.5 million

9. Pink Floyd

Albums sold: 75 million

10. AC/DC

Albums sold: 72 million

11. George Strait

Albums sold: 69 million

12. Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand
Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

Albums sold: 68.5 million

13. The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones in concert
Getty Images

Albums sold: 66.5 million

14. Aerosmith

Aerosmith performs on stage during the Operation Tribute to Freedom, NFL and Pepsi sponsored “NFL Kickoff Live 2003” Concert on the Mall
U.S. Navy, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 66.5 million

15. Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen performs during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games 2017 at Air Canada Centre on September 30, 2017 in Toronto, Canada
Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Albums sold: 66.5 million

16. Madonna

Albums sold: 64.5 million

17. Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Albums sold: 64 million

18. Metallica

Albums sold: 63 million

19. Whitney Houston

American singer Whitney Houston performing on Good Morning America (Central Park, New York City) on September 1, 2009.

Albums sold: 58.5 million

20. Van Halen

Albums sold: 56.5 million

21. Fleetwood Mac

Trade ad for Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours
Warner Bros. Records - Billboard, page 86, 25 Jun 1977, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 54.5 million

22. U2

The Edge and Bono of the rock band U2 perform at Bridgestone Arena on May 26, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Albums sold: 52 million

23. Céline Dion

Albums sold: 50 million

24. Neil Diamond

American pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond relaxes with his guitar. Diamond is shortly to make his film debut in a remake of 'The Jazz Singer'
Keystone/Getty Images

Albums sold: 49.5 million

25. Journey

Albums sold: 48 million

26. Kenny G

Kenny G performs onstage during the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall
Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Albums sold: 48 million

27. Shania Twain

Albums sold: 48 million

28. Kenny Rogers

Albums sold: 47.5 million

29. Alabama

Albums sold: 46.5 million

30. Eminem

Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 46 million

31. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Photo of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.
By American Talent International, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 44.5 million

32. Guns N’ Roses

Slash Ft. Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators At Whisky a Go Go
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Albums sold: 44.5 million

33. Alan Jackson

Albums sold: 43.5 million

34. Santana

Trade ad for Santana's album Santana III
By Columbia Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 43.5 million

35. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift performs onstage at 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango presented by The JUVÉDERM® Collection of Dermal Fillers at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 01, 2019
Rich Fury, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 43 million

36. Reba McEntire

Albums sold: 41 million

37. Eric Clapton

Albums sold: 40 million

38. Chicago

Albums sold: 38.5 million

39. Simon & Garfunkel

Pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, comprising (L-R) singer, Art Garfunkel and singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, performing on ITV's 'Ready, Steady, Go!', July 8, 1966
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 38.5 million

40. Foreigner

Albums sold: 38 million

41. Rod Stewart


Getty Images

Albums sold: 38 million

42. Tim McGraw

Albums sold: 37.5 million

43. Backstreet Boys

Albums sold: 37 million

44. 2 Pac

Albums sold: 36.5 million

45. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Albums sold: 36 million

46. Def Leppard

Albums sold: 35.5 million

47. Queen

 Freddie Mercury (1946 - 1991), lead singer of 70s hard rock quartet Queen, in concert in Milton Keynes in 1982
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 35 million

48. Dave Matthews Band

Albums sold: 34.5 million

49. Britney Spears

Britney Spears performs at the 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2016
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 34.5 million

50. Bon Jovi

Albums sold: 34.5 million

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