Balloon Boy Hoax Grabs Colossal Media Attention

Welcome to 2024, everyone. I want to start the new year on a lighter note, so instead of murder and mayhem, I’m bringing you the story of the Balloon Boy. In 2009, Richard Heene, a reality TV wannabe from Fort Collins, Colorado, launched a hoax that led the media to dub his son “Balloon Boy.”

Balloon Boy Takes Flight

On October 15, 2009, a silver, saucer-shaped object floated across the Fort Collins, Colorado, skies. Although one could easily have mistaken it for a UFO, it was, in fact, a homemade helium balloon. As the balloon drifted, Richard Heene made a frantic call to the Larimer County Sheriff to report that his six-year-old son, Falcon, was missing and believed to be on board the aircraft.

Richard Heene's contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the "Balloon Boy" hoax (9NEWS)
Richard Heene’s contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the “Balloon Boy” hoax (9NEWS)

The response was immediate. National Guard helicopters began tracking the balloon along its meandering flight path. Denver International Airport prepared to react if it intersected the busy travel hub’s airspace. Some flights were rerouted, but DIA did not pause operations. Press reaction was, as you might expect, immediate and intense. Before long, the media dubbed Falcon Heene “Balloon Boy.”

The craft cruised at an altitude of up to 7,000 feet, traveling approximately 60 miles over two hours. It finally returned to earth at 1:35 p.m. near Keenesburg, about 12 miles northeast of DIA. When Falcon was not in the basket, search and rescue teams fanned out across northeastern Colorado, fearing he may have fallen out during the flight.

Around 4:14 p.m., news outlets reported that the Heene family found Falcon hiding inside a cardboard box in the rafters above the garage. Public relief that the boy was safe was palpable.

Balloon Boy: Genuine Emergency or Hoax?

Relief soon turned to dismay and then to anger as several media outlets raised the possibility that the flight had been a hoax. An early clue emerged during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Larry King Live. When Blitzer asked Falcon why he didn’t come out of the garage, and his parents repeated the question, the boy said, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”

The "Balloon Boy," six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)
The “Balloon Boy,” six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)

There was also suspicion that the balloon could not have taken off with Falcon aboard. Brian Jones, a physics professor at Colorado State University, made an initial finding that the balloon could have lifted the 37-pound child. However, he based his conclusions on the balloon’s dimensions and weight Heene provided, which were larger and lighter than the actual balloon proved to be. The balloon, as built, could not have taken off with Falcon as a passenger.

Also of note, in addition to notifying the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Heene called the Denver NBC affiliate, KUSA-TV, and requested they send up a helicopter to track the balloon.

Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)
Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)

On November 13, 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. On December 23, a judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write an apology to the agencies involved in the search and pay $36,000 in restitution. Mayumi Heene received a 20-day jail term for false reporting to authorities.

Epilogue

In January 2010, Richard Heene began claiming in interviews that the incident was not a hoax and that he only pled guilty to avoid his wife’s deportation (she was a Japanese citizen). However, most people remain unconvinced.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis pardoned the Heenes in December 2020, saying they had already “paid the price in the eyes of the public” and that it was time for Colorado to move on from the case.

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