Remember when you were a kid and you played around with balloons? Most of us probably wanted to try and float at least a bit with the few helium balloons they had. Some even succeeded – albeit such attempts generally required a lot of balloons and their different quality altogether. But in 2009 it appeared that one kid managed to do what all kids dreamt of – and all parents dreaded. A six-year-old supposedly snuck into a giant helium balloon which his father Richard Heene built and soared to an altitude of 7,000 feet.
The flight of the home-made flying saucer was only an hour long, but it covered over 50 miles, landed dangerously close to the Denver Airport and garnered attention of emergency services – but the real impact happened in the media space. In the world where information is overabundant and where real-time coverage is all but expected with any more or less important or interesting event, this incident dominated the media space.
For example, here’s an excerpt from one of the earliest Associated Press reports:
TA 6-year-old boy climbed into a homemade balloon aircraft and floated away Thursday, forcing officials to scramble to figure out how to rescue the boy as he hurled through the air. The bizarre scene played out live on television and prompted fears that the flying saucer-shaped balloon would crash with the young child inside. The balloon rotated slowly in the wind, tipping precariously at times. FAA spokesman Mike Fergus says the agency has been notified and it was unclear whether traffic controllers had picked it up on radar.
Here’s the fallout: the Denver airport had been temporarily shut down by the authorities; several police and National Guard helicopters monitored the balloon; after the landed balloon was inspected and no one was found, the authorities initiated a manhunt-slash-body recovery over the ballon’s flight path area, fearing he might had fallen out. Thankfully, the boy was found in a matter of hours –although in an unexpected place – he was hiding in the home attic. Falcon – an appropriately aerial name – was not only the key element in the popularity of the hoax, abut also in its demise. CNN summed it up:
"In a later interview with CNN's "Larry King Live," Falcon said he heard his parents call for him from the garage. When asked by his father on-air why he didn't respond, the boy replied, "You guys said we did this for the show." When the father was pressed by Wolf Blitzer, who was filling in for King, to explain what his son meant, he became uncomfortable, finally saying he was "appalled" by the questions, and then adding that Falcon was likely referring to all the media coverage.
It was three days after the flight that the local sheriff Jim Alderden announced his conclusion of the investigation that followed the expensive endeavor. The authorities believed that it was an elaborate hoax aimed at bringing the amateur inventor to the limelight. During the following legal proceedings Richard Heene eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of attempting to influence a public servant. On December 23, 2009, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail; his wife was sentenced to 20 days of weekend jail. The family also paid $36,000 in restitution. It’s not that bad. The New York Post estimated that the total cost of the rescue operation at $2 million – and that doesn’t take into the account media air time and man-hours of journalists working on the fake story.