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.

While discussing the Heenes' misguided flight, one Cleveland outlet recalled that Falcon wasn't the first "Balloon Boy." In 1931, 4-year-old Bill Crawford's father strapped him to a seat attached to a helium-filled balloon and allowed the child to float up to 50 feet in the air, much to the amazement of onlookers. For willfully endangering his son, the elder Crawford was cheered by crowds desperate for any sort of amusement during the Great Depression.

A Hazardous History of the Slip 'N Slide

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

One day in the summer of 1960, Robert Carrier arrived at his home in Lakewood, California, and saw his 10-year-old son Mike laying in front of the garage. When he got closer, he noticed his son was laughing. The property had a painted concrete driveway, and when it got wet, its surface became slick. Mike and his friends had spent the afternoon turning on the garden hose, getting a running start from the garage—which was carpeted—and then belly-flopping onto the concrete, sliding all the way to the curb.

“You guys are going to kill yourselves doing this,” Carrier said. Yet he didn’t tell them to stop.

When the Carriers moved to a new home—which had a back patio painted with the same slick coating—Mike and his friends brought their garden hose antics with them. The fun and games continued until Mike ended up crashing through a gate and breaking it.

It was at this point that Robert Carrier decided that if his son was going to insist on sliding, he might as well try to make it as safe as possible.

Carrier was an upholsterer who happened to work for a company that produced boat seats and had access to a variety of materials. So he brought home a 50-foot roll of Naugahyde, a fabric coated in vinyl, which he unspooled on his property. Carrier curled the material over on one side and stitched it in intervals. When the hose was fed through the curl, water seeped through the holes and kept the surface wet.

The result was a backyard lane devoted to slipping and sliding. When Carrier saw neighborhood kids racing over and traffic on his street getting backed up, he decided to patent his invention. The application referred to it as a “portable aquatic play device for body planing.” He called it the Slip ‘N Slide—though he probably should have named it the Slip ‘N Sue.

 

Carrier and his business partner, Richard Eriser, took his idea to the Wham-O company, a brand devoted to celebrating off-kilter toys like the Hula Hoop and Frisbee. Wham-O was also inventor-friendly and open to outside submissions. They agreed to manufacture and market the Slip ‘N Slide with one adjustment: The expensive Naugahyde material would have to be replaced with plastic.

A child goes down a water slide
Nat_Batemen/iStock via Getty Images

The 30-foot-long, 40-inch-wide Slip ‘N Slide went on sale in 1961 and was an immediate hit, selling 300,000 units priced at $9.95 in a matter of months. Kids were instructed to unwind the material across an area free of rocks or debris and then stake it into the ground. The surface had a lubricant molded directly into the plastic that acted as a propellant, so that kids sprinting to the top of the slide would take off like human projectiles. Some kids even added dish soap to the water provided by their garden hose for additional propulsion.

The same year the Slip ‘N Slide was introduced, Wham-O officials observed an interesting phenomenon: The more fun kids had, the more compelled adults felt to try it. Initially, this wasn’t seen as a big deal; plenty of parents play with their kids' toys. But the Slip ‘N Slide had been engineered for children of limited height and weight, typically under 125 pounds. When adults jumped on the surface, they were not always jettisoned across. Sometimes their weight meant they would abruptly stop, the forward momentum driving the weight of their body directly onto their necks. This could be devastating for the spinal cord and it was possible to suffer quadriplegia, paraplegia, or even death as a result of the impact.

Between 1973 and 1991, it's estimated that a total of seven adults and one 13-year-old suffered neck injuries or paralysis as a direct result of using the Slip ‘N Slide. Though these instances were rare, Wham-O was apparently concerned to the point they opted to take it off the market in the late 1970s. It wasn’t brought back to store shelves until Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco company in 1982.

 

The Slip ‘N Slide had always carried warnings that it was for use by children 10 or 11 years of age and younger. But it was not a superficially dangerous-looking plaything, and adults either failed to take the warning seriously or simply discarded the box and instructions without paying any attention to them. As a possible result, Kransco experienced two major lawsuits that would elevate the Slip ‘N Slide to the level of a public nuisance.

A child goes down a water slide
hixson/iStock via Getty Images

In 1987, Michael Hubert of Wisconsin used his neighbor’s Slip ‘N Slide and suffered a broken neck. The 34-year-old was left an incomplete paraplegic, meaning he had a limited ability to walk and use his hands. He sued Kransco over the injury. American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company, which insured Kransco, offered Hubert a $250,000 settlement, which he rejected. The case went to a jury trial in 1991 and Hubert was awarded $12.3 million. The jury declared the Slip ‘N Slide defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Kransco ultimately settled with Hubert for $7.5 million. They subsequently sued American Empire, claiming the insurance company could have settled for $750,000 but chose not to, leaving Kransco on the hook for paying the settlement above the $1 million they had in coverage. Kransco won that case and was awarded $17 million.

In 1988, a University of Central Florida student named Robert Goldstein broke his neck on the slide. He also sued and was awarded $1.6 million in 1995. John C. Mitchell II, the lawyer who represented Goldstein, later said he believed the lawsuits influenced Kransco to take the Slip ‘N Slide off the market in 1991. But that was far from the end of the controversy.

In 1993, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall notice in conjunction with Kransco to alert consumers to the dangers of the slide. Though it had been discontinued, 9 million had been sold between 1961 and 1992 and an unknown number were still available in stores. (A total of 30 million slides were sold through 2011.) The CPSC warned the slide was for children and that adults and teenagers might suffer permanent spinal cord injury. Unlike some product recalls, however, the CPSC did not take action to take it off the market entirely. The reason, according to a spokesperson, was that it was a product for children, and children were not getting hurt on it—only adults were.

In 1994, attorney Matthew Rinaldi told The Seattle Times that accurate injury numbers were hard to come by because previous settlements may have included agreements not to discuss the case. Rinaldi represented a man in California who became a quadriplegic as a result of the slide. In preparation for that case, he found two people who broke their necks in the 1970s, one of whom had died. He also found six adults who suffered broken necks in the 1980s and 1990s as well as one 8-year-old girl who suffered brain damage. In 1989, a consumer advocacy group known as the Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action reported that 5000 people had gone to the hospital for slide-related injuries in 1988 alone.

 

In 1994, while the Slip 'N Slide was still dormant, Kransco sold Wham-O to Mattel. The company was sold again in 1997, this time to an investment group led by Charterhouse Group. In 2001, Wham-O brought out a revamped version of the Slip ‘N Slide with a longer path, water tunnels, and archways. The company said it was “perfectly safe” for anyone under the age of 11 to use.

A man stands up on a water slide
scampdesigns/iStock via Getty Images

Since that time, Wham-O has been sold twice more—first to Cornerstone Overseas Investments in 2005 and then to InterSport and Stallion Sport in 2015. The Slip ‘N Slide remains on sale with the standard cautions that it should only be used by kids, though that hasn’t prevented adults from trying it out. This time, they tend to post the results on YouTube.

"Officially, the box says under 12," Wham-O president Todd Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. "Not everyone abides by that."

While the history of the Slip 'N Slide appears sensational, it's not unique in the realm of playthings that can prompt injury. Between 2002 and 2011, roughly 1 million people—most of them kids under the age of 16—wound up in the emergency room as a result of bouncing on a trampoline. A third of them suffered long bone fractures.

When used as directed, Slip 'N Slides can be a fun and safe diversion, though that still hasn't stopped the product from being stigmatized. In late 2018, another consumer watchdog group, World Against Toys Causing Harm, released their list of the most dangerous toys on the market. Among them: water balloon slingshots, backyard pools, and the Slip ‘N Slide.

The Long Stride of Tony Little, Infomercial Titan

Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Tony Little didn’t see it coming. It was 1983, and the aspiring bodybuilder and future Gazelle pitchman was living in Tampa Bay, Florida, winding down his training for the Mr. America competition that was coming up in just six weeks. While driving to the gym, Little stopped at a red light and waited. Suddenly, a school bus materialized on his left, plowing into Little's vehicle and crumpling his driver’s side door.

Dazed and running on adrenaline, Little got out and sprinted over to find the bus was full of children. After seeing that none of the kids were seriously hurt, he promptly passed out. When Little later awoke, he was in the hospital, where he was handed a laundry list of the injuries he had sustained. There were two herniated discs, a cracked vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a dislocated knee. He struggled to maintain his physique in the weight room and made only a perfunctory appearance at that year's Mr. America competition. Little's dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder had been derailed courtesy of an errant school bus, whose driver had been drunk.

Though it took some time, Little eventually overcame the setback, pivoting from his original goal of being a champion bodybuilder to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the history of televised advertising. Before he did that, however, he would have to recover from another car accident.

 

For someone so devoted to physical achievement, Little was constantly being undercut by obstacles. During a high school football game, Little—who was a star player on his team in Ohio—ended up tearing the cartilage in his knee after he collided with future NFL player Rob Lytle. From that point on, Little's knee popped out of place whenever he stepped onto the field or went to gym class.

Tony Little is photographed at the premiere of Vh1's 'Celebrity Paranormal Project' in Hollywood, California in 2006
John M. Heller, Getty Images

In There’s Always a Way, his 2009 autobiography, Little wrote about how that injury—and the loss of a potential athletic scholarship—caused him to act out. A friend of his stole a Firebird and took Little for a joyride. When they were caught, Little took the blame; as he was under 18, Little figured he would get by with a slap on the wrist, while his older friend might be tried and convicted of a serious crime as an adult. According to Little, the judge gave him a pass on the condition that he relocate to Tampa Bay, where he could live with his uncle and put some distance between himself and the negative influences in his life. Little agreed.

Because of his previous injury, Little was unable to play football after making the move to Florida; instead, he devoted himself to his new high school’s weight room, where a bad knee was not nearly as limiting. After graduating, he pursued bodybuilding, earning the titles of Junior Mr. America and Mr. Florida. Little envisioned a future where he would be a fitness personality, selling his own line of supplements when he wasn't competing professionally.

The school bus changed all that. Little, who was now unable to train at the level such serious competition required, retreated to his condo, where he said he relied on painkillers to numb the physical and emotional pain of the accident. More misfortune followed: Little accidentally sat in a pool of chemicals at a friend’s manufacturing plant, suffering burns. He also had a bout with meningitis.

While Little was convalescing from this string of ailments and accidents, he saw Jane Fonda on television, trumpeting her line of workout videos. Little was intrigued: Maybe he didn’t need to have bodybuilding credentials to reach a wider audience. Maybe his enthusiastic approach to motivating people would be enough.

By now it was the mid-1980s, and a very good time to get into televised pitching. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated paid airtime for cable networks. Herbalife was the first to sign up, airing an infomercial for their line of nutritional products. Soon, stations were broadcasting all kinds of paid programs. Exercise advice and equipment pitches were abundant, a kind of throwback to department stores that used to feature product demonstrations. It was not enough to read about a Soloflex, which used resistance bands to strengthen muscles. It was better to see it in action.

Now that he was back in shape, Little was ready to make his mark. He was told by his local cable access channel that he could buy 15 half-hours of airtime for $5500. To raise the money, Little started a cleaning service for gyms and health clubs. After airing installments of an exercise program, he was picked up by the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little made his HSN debut in 1987. With his energetic pitch and trademark ponytail, he sold 400 workout videos in four hours.

 

Little was on the home-shopping and infomercial circuit for years before landing his breakthrough project. In 1996, the Ohio-based company Fitness Quest was preparing to launch their Gazelle, an elliptical trainer that could raise the heart rate without any impact on joints. People used their hands and feet to move in a long stride that felt effortless.

Little felt he would be the perfect spokesperson for the Gazelle and entered into an arrangement with Bob Schnabel, the company's president. The night before the infomercial was scheduled to shoot, Little was driving when he got into another serious car accident that required 200 stitches in his face. Little called Schnabel to break the news, and was told he’d have to be replaced.

Tony Little demonstrates a Gazelle during an MTV upfront presentation in New York in 2016
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Undaunted, Little flew from Florida to Ohio to speak to Schnabel in person. By insisting that he could make the story inspirational (and that he could cover up his injuries with make-up), Little managed to convince Schnabel to proceed with the infomercial as planned. The Gazelle ended up with $1.5 billion in revenue, with Little’s other ventures—Cheeks sandals, bison meat, and a therapeutic pillow—bringing the total sales of his endorsed products to more than $3 billion. Little later reprised his Gazelle pitch for a Geico commercial, which also served as a stealth ad for the machine—which is still on the market.

While pitching wound up being relatively low-impact, it was not completely without problems. Little once said that the accumulation of appearances—more than 10,000 in all—has done some damage to his neck because of constantly having to swivel his head between the camera and the model demonstrating his product.

Those appearances have made Little synonymous with the machine. In 2013, the Smithsonian's National Zoo wondered what to name their new baby gazelle. The answer: Little Tony.

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