Falcon Heene became known as "Balloon Boy" in 2009, after a helium balloon resembling a flying saucer floated from his home
It ends up he wasn't in the balloon, and his parents were charged; the family subsequently moved to Florida
The Heene boys, including Falcon, are home-schooled, active and make up "the world's youngest metal band"
Editor’s Note: This is one in an occasional series called “Rewind: Where are they now?” It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines – and then faded from view.
Not every family’s living space is part game room, part chicken coop, part rehearsal space, part music video backdrop. Not every family intersperses homeschool science experiments with circling the lawn on dirt bikes, exploring caves and learning to forage in the woods. Not every family boasts what it calls the world’s youngest heavy metal band or crafts a musical involving peyote, cactus people and a whole lot of poop.
And only one family can claim “Balloon Boy” as their own.
That’s the moniker given to Falcon Heene in October 2009 when he was just 6 years old. For nearly two hours, people around the world fixated on his fate – fearing he’d floated as high as 7,000 feet in a massive helium balloon resembling a flying saucer. It landed 90 miles from the family’s home in Fort Collins, Colorado, with no Falcon inside. He turned up in an attic over the garage, having never been tucked in the balloon as his parents said.
His discovery ended a frantic effort to save him. It also started legal woes for his parents, both of whom served time in jail after a story that started to unravel during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
A lot has changed in the nearly six years since. The family moved nearly 2,000 miles away, to Spring Hill, Florida, seeking what father Richard Heene calls the Sunshine State’s “great energy.”
Richard no longer chases tornadoes or creates inventions like he used to. He focuses instead on carpentry, contracting and managing his boys’ music career. And the three brothers – 15-year-old Bradford, 14-year-old Ryo and 12-year-old Falcon, the now-twice-as-old “Balloon Boy” – have grown bigger and have pursuits ranging from violent video games to a passion for thrashing.
Still, family is a constant.
They do most everything together, from meals to lessons to games to adventures. The boys are schooled at the same kitchen table, revel in the same off-color sense of humor, and share the master bedroom in a modest three-bedroom house. Their dad says he won’t let one stay over at a friend’s house unless all three can go.
The family wants to keep that tight-knit, free-spirited vibe as long as they can. The “Balloon Boy” ordeal is one reason why, as is their philosophy of starting from scratch every day, anticipating it will be a good one.
“That whole thing – if there was any effect whatsoever about that incident, it would be that we’ve become more positive, more close,” Richard says.
“We learned a lot,” he says. “We don’t want any negatives hanging over us, any black clouds.”
’Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer’
Mayumi and Richard Heene met in Southern California, where he’d gone to pursue his dream of being a comedian and she had moved from her native Japan, where she played guitar in a rock band. They married three months later, starting an entertainment production business and family.
They moved to Colorado, but not away from the spotlight. All five Heenes appeared on ABC’s “Wife Swap,” in which mothers from two families who have opposite living or parenting styles switch places for two weeks. The Heenes come off as open, colorful, freewheeling types, exposing their boys to adventure, cursing and laying down few apparent rules.
The whole family would tag along to chase storms, watching Richard hop on a motorcycle to race toward a tornado and record scientific measurements. The Heenes shared their stories widely, including with CNN iReport chronicling the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
And after Hollywood gossip website TMZ.com reported they had pitched “a reality show about the wacky family,” one of the networks that was mentioned – TLC, then airing the hit reality series “Jon and Kate Plus 8” – told CNN that “they approached us … and we passed.”
Months after that pitch, on October 15, 2009, a 20-foot-long, 5-foot-high, silver helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer took off from the Heenes’ backyard. That it had come untied and floated away made it an instant curiosity; the fact that a young boy was said to be on it made it an emergency.
“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi Heene told a 911 dispatcher. “… I can’t find him anywhere!”
Sheriff calls CNN interview a turning point
As soon as the story got out, the world couldn’t get enough.
News outlets from Al-Jazeera to the BBC to CNN beamed images of the floating spectacle, with the quickly-dubbed “Balloon Boy” presumably inside. Social media exploded. Seven of Twitter’s top 10 trending topics at one point that afternoon had to do with Falcon Heene.
It became clear soon enough that Falcon had not been in the balloon at all – he had been safe at home all along.
Rather than sit back and deal with the situation privately, the Heenes leaped into the limelight. Richard invited about 30 journalists into his home so they could see where Falcon hid. The boy took part in this media circus, though it didn’t always go smoothly. In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, the 6-year-old leaned his head against his father and vomited, right in front of the camera.