On October 15th, 2009, for a few hours, news stations across America were focused on one thing: Balloon Boy. A six-year old boy, allegedly drifting over two kilometers above Colorado in a homemade balloon, was in the national spotlight that week, for both broadcast news reporters and the blogosphere. The boy, Falcon Heene, was actually safely in his parent’s attic during the entire event, which they later plead guilty to orchestrating. We heard a lot about Balloon Boy that day, but what has the media sensation been up to since?
Balloon Boy’s Family – Background and Update
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that there were a lot of warning signs that Balloon Boy might be a publicity stunt. A six year old boy floating in a homemade balloon more than 7000 feet above the mountain town of Fort Collins, Colorado, sounds untrue on its own. With context added by knowing about the Heene family, it should have been expected that Falcon Heene’s aerial journey never actually took place.
And it’s difficult to give the Heenes that context without focusing on Falcon’s father. Richard Heene, father to Falcon and his two older brothers, Bradford and Ryo, has a history of drawing attention to himself.
“A shameless self-promoter who would do almost anything to advance his latest endeavor,” is how Perry Caravello referred to Richard. Perry, an actor comedian, met Richard in the 1980s, when Richard was a struggling stand-up comedian and actor. Later, Richard and his wife, Mayumi Iizuka, would spend time in Nevada, running a production company producing demo videos for comics out of their home.
All this seemed to be to finance and draw attention to Richard’s true passions, storm chasing and aliens. Richard, a self-proclaimed inventor and amateur scientist, first started chasing after tornadoes and other weather in the 1970s. His antics to date include building something he called a “tornado cannon,” intended to dissipate storms, driving into a tornado on a motorcycle, and allegedly flying an airplane around the perimeter of Hurricane Wilma, in 2005.
Richard and his wife were featured on the reality TV show Wife Swap twice, the second time after being voted an audience favorite. While on the show, Heene spoke at length about his belief in aliens and how they had created humanity. He used the show as an opportunity to pitch his own show to TLC, which he called The Science Detectives, where he planned to “investigate the mysteries of science.” Unfortunately, the network had no interest in the show, which is perhaps encouraged Richard Heene to cultivate the Balloon Boy incident.
Falcon’s Fictitious Flight
It’s unclear whether or not the Balloon Boy Hoax was planned, though Richard and Mayumi both plead guilty. There’s video of the Heene family launching the balloon. Approximately 20 feet in diameter, and five feet tall, the balloon was constructed from plastic tarps, aluminium foil, string, and duct tape, with a small box underneath it made of plywood, cardboard, and more string and duct tape. The video shows Richard examining the helium-filled balloon and inspecting the basket underneath. Then, Richard, his wife, and the two sons Bradford and Ryo, count down from three, and release the balloon.
After a few moments, it’s clear the balloon isn’t tethered to the ground. In the video, Richard swears profusely, but no one seems to notice Falcon’s absence, and no one suggests he may be in the basket.
According to the family, one of the sons mentioned seeing Falcon climb into the basket, and at 11:30 in the morning, they called 911, KUSA-TV (a Denver NBC affiliate,) and allegedly the FAA. The balloon was then tracked by KUSA-TV’s helicopters while it drifted 60 miles. The Colorado National Guard even supplemented the media’s aerial coverage with their own helicopters. Planes were rerouted around the balloon’s path, and Denver International Airport was briefly shut down.
The balloon eventually landed about two hours later, 12 miles north of the airport. When Falcon wasn’t found in the balloon, the media coverage for the first time acknowledged that the incident might be a hoax.
Then focus turned to a report from a sheriff deputy. They had observed an object fall from the balloon outside Platteville, Colorado. This sparked an intensive search and rescue attempt. However, at approximately 4pm, CNN and then other news stations began reporting that Falcon Heene had been found, hiding in a box above his parents’ garage.
Media Coverage of Balloon Boy Incident
One of the reasons Balloon Boy is such a memorable media figure from the late 2000s is that the entire incident received extensive online coverage.
“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,” Robert Thompson wrote. From the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, Thompson highlighted the effect the Internet had in shaping the event.
While it was the presence of news helicopters that enabled coverage of the event, it was the presence of the blogosphere which led to its analysis and lasting reputation. Before the balloon had even landed, blogs were estimating weight limits based on perceived dimensions of the balloons, guessing how much Falcon would weigh, and trying to figure out if the balloon would even be able to lift the boy.
By the time the balloon landed, articles featuring full biographies of Richard Heene were trending to the top of Reddit. There were even articles already analyzing the analysis of the event. Unfortunately, these reports were selectively highlighted on television. Editor & Publisher magazine stated that “only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of the boy in it were ‘unverified,’” even though the immediate coverage on the Internet was highly skeptical.
For better or worse, Balloon Boy was a defining moment in how TV news broadcasts approached coverage of events, and syndication of information from the Internet. And it seems like Richard got what he wanted, since people are still discussing the incident and using it as a benchmark.
Balloon Boy Now – What is He Doing Post Hoax
That night, Falcon and his family briefly responded interview requests, though those only served to validate growing suspicions of a hoax. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer for Larry King Live, Falcon claimed, “we did this for the show.” The next day, when asked for more information about his statement, six-year-old Falcon vomited twice, once on ABC’s Good Morning America and again on NBC’s The Today Show.
Falcon’s behavior in the media led to local sheriffs investigating the possibility of the event being a publicity stunt. In an affidavit submitted to gain a search warrant, Mayumi, Richard’s wife and Falcon’s mother, admitted knowing Falcon was hiding in their home. The affadavit alleges the hoax was planned around two weeks prior to the actual launch, and that the parents had instructed their children to lie to authorities and the media about the hoax, with the stated reason of making the family “more marketable for future media interests.”
On December 29th 2009, Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with 100 hours of community service. His wife received 20 days worth of supervised community service, and their family was banned from receiving any income related to the hoax for several years. In addition, Richard was ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution, to help cover the costs of the search and rescue efforts, and ordered to write a formal apology to the agencies that organized the search.
In 2015, Richard claimed in an interview on The Today Show that both his guilty plea and his wife’s statements were to prevent her deportation, which the authorities had threatened. Since the trial, the Heene family moved to Spring Hill, Florida, outside Tampa. Since then, Richard has continued to pursue his eclectic dreams, including creating a scratching post for humans, dubbed the “Bear Scratch.” He also has created a device for shaking out the last bit of mustard from a jar.
Falcon, now 12 years old, is in a heavy metal band with his two older brothers. The Heene Boyz, “the world’s youngest metal band,” began playing shows in 2012. Falcon is also working a rock opera called “American Chilly,” which focuses on a character who inherits a motel restaurant, and proceeds to eat peyote to try and break a curse incurred when the character’s ancestors massacred Native Americans after also eating peyote. Richard calls his sons’ “rockestra” a mix of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Rock of Ages.” Falcon also produced an independent video game, also called “American Chilly.”
It might not have brought the sort of attention Richard and his family are known for seeking, but the entire Balloon Boy hoax did secure Falcon and his father a place in American culture, at least for now. In July 2015, Balloon Boy: The Musical was selected by the New York Musical Theatre Festival, after winning an award for best opening number, The Balloon Boy Song.
Falcon, when asked recently about how he felt about Balloon Boy, said he “really [doesn’t] care,” and would rather focus on his band, which performs around Florida.