Boy's prank takes Americans for a 'balloon ride'

The journey that never was

 
Richard Heene, wife Mayumi, sons Falcon Heene, Bradford (centre) and Ryan (right) in Fort Collins, Colorado, on  Thursday. ReutersA search party was readied — on foot, on horseback, in helicopters loaded with infrared sensors — to scour the aircraft’s path of more than 60 miles, some terrified that the boy might have fallen from his accidental perch.

In the early afternoon, the balloon landed near Denver International Airport, but the boy was not in it. At last, near dusk, he was found, hiding in a box in his family’s garage attic, fearful his father would be angry at him for touching the flying machine his father had built in their backyard.

The boy’s journey, it turned out, had never begun.

“Quite frankly, I couldn’t stand,” the boy’s father, Richard Heene, said of the moment his youngest son, Falcon, suddenly reappeared inside the family’s home in Fort Collins. “I just hit the floor with my knees,” Heene said, as Falcon, chomping pizza and occasionally grinning, stood among the throng of reporters in the family’s front yard. “He scared the heck out of us.”

It was a cheery ending to a peculiar story, one that sent those watching it unfold on television through emotions from horror and mystification to relief. By nightfall, questions were emerging about the public costs of the episode , which interrupted departures from the Denver airport, and about how Falcon had managed to stay hidden in the attic as the authorities twice searched the family home.

But Heene said that all was exactly as it appeared. One of his older sons had seen Falcon near the helium-filled aircraft Heene had been building, moments before its tether came loose, and it flew off. And, so, he said, all day, the family, and the nation, believed that the boy was in it.

Within about 30 minutes after the balloon took to the skies, family members, hearing the insistent story of Falcon’s brother Bradford, 10, summoned the authorities. Soon, the authorities were racing in helicopters and fire engines after the spaceshiplike craft — topped with a balloon about 20 feet wide and 7 feet long — as cameras in news helicopters followed.It whipped along on the gusty day, with winds reaching 20 miles per hour at times, seeming to dart and bob. The small compartment that could have carried a person was closed from view, so those watching the images on television could only imagine the terror of a 6-year-old inside. And then, after nearly three hours, the craft floated gently to a rest in a dirt field not far from the airport. As emergency vehicles surrounded the craft, the officials nervously opened it. They found no one inside.

Before a news conference here, Heene acknowledged having snapped at Falcon earlier on Thursday — before the balloon got loose — for having crawled inside it, and said he suspected that had made the boy fearful that he would be in worse trouble once the balloon vanished.

The New York Times

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