Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later

Falcon in his element.
Falcon in his element.
Image: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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It was the balloon America couldn’t take its eyes off—floating out of control in the Colorado sky, purportedly carrying a six-year-old boy inside. Cable news speculated on the child’s odds of survival. It was one of the first breaking news events to unfold on the internet as much as TV, with people on Twitter chronicling the balloon’s every movement.

When the balloon finally landed, several hours later on October 15, 2009, the boy was not aboard. The country had been transfixed by an empty vessel filled with hot air—the perfect metaphor for a certain kind of American media moment.

Five years later, Balloon Boy and his family still maintain the incident was a spectacular misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, pleaded guilty to charges that it was a hoax, and Richard served some jail time.

Balloon Boy, whose real name is Falcon Heene, is now 11 years old. He and his brothers—Ryo, 13, and Bradford, 15—tour Florida these days as a metal band called Heene Boyz. Their third album includes the song, “Balloon Boy No Hoax.”

Quartz recently interviewed the Heene family over Skype to talk about the event and what the family has been doing since then. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Image for article titled Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later

Can you take me through that day and tell me what happened?

Richard Heene: Oh boy, let’s see. That morning. It’s a long time ago. I remember we wanted to get an early start because we didn’t want a lot of wind messing up our experiment. We had a whole bunch of experiments to do [regarding] various parts of the flying saucer.…We got a late start, the wind started picking up, and right when we were ready to do our experiment, obviously, it got loose from the tethers.

And at what point did you think that Falcon was on board?

Richard: Well, Bradford said that he was on board, and to my recall, at that second I thought, “Well, he was just standing right there, right behind me,” but he wasn’t. And so I started running around the house looking for him and calling out his name, and he didn’t come out.

Bradford Heene: And you [Falcon] kept going in a couple of times, and he kept telling you to get out because it’s dangerous.

Richard: Yeah, yeah, that was like the fourth time he was in it. We kept telling him not to go inside, but by the fourth time I went to like level four, yelled at him and said, you know, “Get out of the craft.” And he was playing beside the little storage unit where the battery unit was. But, anyway, we ran around the house, couldn’t find him, and then, I don’t know, within 30 seconds of them telling me I started panicking, and that’s when all hell broke loose….You know, for me, every second felt like 30 minutes. And every second that went by and we couldn’t find him, I got more fearful that Bradford may be right, maybe he’s in it.

Why did you think he was in the balloon?

Bradford: Because he was in it like four times throughout the day, and he liked the flying saucer, he thought it was cool. And when he went missing and it started floating up, it was like, oh my God, no way. It started floating up, like, “Oh shit.”

Richard: We would take him to stores like Walmart, and he would hide in clothes. And we would spend several minutes trying to find him. And even today, he runs out and hides. So it’s just his character.

Did you call the police?

Richard: Gosh, again, five years. Well, I was certified level one to launch a high-powered rocket. And when you do that, you have to call the FAA if you launch 1,000 feet. So my first reaction, having that training, was to call the FAA…because I’m thinking, you know, a plane could hit it or something like that. Maybe they have helicopters.…And then they told me I had to call 911. So I call 911. In the meantime while I’m on that phone call, Mayumi was trying to find a helicopter. And her first reaction…I guess came from watching newsreels of car chases. So she called one of the stations to get a helicopter.

You didn’t think that the police could give you a helicopter, maybe?

Richard: No, it didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t even know how 911 was even going to help.…I got certified, so I could launch test equipment into storms. That’s the first thing they teach you, is you’ve got to call the FAA.

And Falcon, I know you were young, but do you remember what you were doing and what was happening?

Falcon at age six.
Falcon at age six.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking

Falcon Heene: Well, since we were making this UFO, I thought it was just very cool. I went in it because, like, “Spaceships, cool, I could fit in it.” I just kept going in it because like, yeah, I just thought it was very cool. And when my dad yelled at me, I was like, “I’m just a little kid,” so I like just got scared, and then I ran to the attic…and just hid there for a couple hours.

OK, and did you hear them calling for you and everything?

Falcon: Barely, but yeah, sort of.

So how come you didn’t come out?

Falcon: I was scared.

What were you scared of?

Falcon: I don’t know, at that moment, I was just scared for some reason. But, yeah, I just didn’t want to come out. I like it in the attic. It was cool. I saw rat poop up there.

How long were you up there? How long were you hiding?

Falcon: I don’t know. It felt like two minutes.

Richard, do you remember how long he was hiding for?

Bradford: My question is how did you not pee?

That is a good question.

Image for article titled Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking

What did you think was going on when there were all these people at your house and looking for you?

Falcon: Well, at the time, I was young, I was very confused.…I didn’t really know why all these people were here. I was like, “Dude, what the heck?” No, I was like, “Are we being robbed? Are we getting robbed or something?” I found my mom, and then I said, “Hey, mom, can I have a sandwich?” And then they found me.

Is that how they found you? Because you found your mom and asked her to make you a sandwich?

Falcon: Yes. I needed a sandwich.

Richard, were you there when that happened, when he asked for a sandwich?

Richard: Yeah, I was standing right next to Mayumi on the couch.…But, yeah, I guess he was hungry.

What was your reaction? What did you do then?

Richard: Well, I didn’t really hear it all that well, but my first reaction was, “Wow, there he is.” But yeah, I mean, it was a shock. It was joy at the same time. We were just happy to have him there in front of us. Would have bought him a steak dinner, I didn’t care.

And, Bradford and Ryo, what were your reactions when all of this was going on?

Bradford: We thought our brother was like gone, and we found him. We were like, “Holy crap, he’s alive!”

Image for article titled Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later
Image: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

When the whole Balloon Boy thing was happening, you were getting a lot of attention on TV and on Twitter. Were you aware that was happening and the huge amount of national attention on the issue?

Richard: No, we had zero idea that there was any press outside. And the shocking part for us was, when Falcon came out, the investigator, whoever he was, he walked up to me and said, “What’re you going to do about the press outside?” And I said, “What press?” I just thought it was just cops. Because he told us to sit on the sofa and they wouldn’t allow us to move. So I didn’t know there was media outside. And then he said, “You’re going to have to go out there and talk to them.” And I said, “I’m not going to go out there and talk to them. I just found my son.” And he said, “Well, if you don’t, they’re going to follow you around for the next couple weeks.” And I asked him if he would go out there with me, and he said, “No, but the sheriff is already on his way down to make a statement.”…And I thought that that was ridiculous. I don’t think that there should have been any press at all.

So it was not like this whole balloon thing happened because you wanted publicity?

Richard: No, that had nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing.

Bradford: We just wanted to make a flying saucer.

Richard: We were doing what we always do. And if anything, that whole balloon incident thing—I don’t call it a balloon, by the way, everyone else calls it that.

What is it?

Richard: It’s a flying saucer. And I named it an LAV: low altitude vehicle. And we did everything we could to keep it secret from everybody, because all my inventions, I don’t tell people what I’m doing.

Image for article titled Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later
Image: AP Photo/Will Powers

*  *  *

During a CNN interview with with the family, Wolf Blitzer asked Falcon why he hid in the attic, and Falcon responded to his parents, “You guys said that we did this for the show.”

Falcon, do you remember what you were talking about, or why you said that, if it wasn’t for a show?

Falcon: Well, yeah, there was this Chinese guy. He was walking up to me, this guy with a video camera, and he’s like, “Hey, do you mind showing me how you got in the attic?” I was like, yeah, why not, so I showed him how I got in the attic. I showed him that there was a lot of rat poop up there.…I thought they were asking me about that Chinese dude’s show.

*  *  *

After the incident, Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail, and Mayumi to 20 days of community service.

Richard and Mayumi Heene appeared in court in late 2010
Richard and Mayumi Heene appeared in court in late 2010
Image: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

So you mentioned that you were on probation.

Richard: Yeah, it was a 90-day sentence. But it got lesser and lesser: 28 days in jail, 2 days off for good behavior, then I moved over to work release 28 days, and then 28 days of the ankle monitor.

So boys, for you, what was that like for you to see your dad going through that?

Bradford: Oh my God, that sucked. We like missed our dad so much, that sucked. He was with us like all our lives, and then those 28 days sucked when he wasn’t there.

OK, and is Mayumi there, too? I’d like to have her be a part of this general conversation, as well.

Richard: She’s shaking her head no.

So whose idea was it to start the band?

Bradford: It was like everybody’s idea. I started playing guitar, and Falcon was like, “Oh crap, that’s cool,” and then Ryo thought it was cool, too. So we just bought everybody instruments and stuff. Falcon originally got a guitar, and he traded out for a bass.

The Heene Boyz play gigs around Florida.
The Heene Boyz play gigs around Florida.
Image: Courtesy of Richard Heene

Richard: They’re going to be playing Saturday.

Bradford: We’re going to sign boobs in Daytona.

Richard: Yeah, the girls are pretty wild, they wear bikinis, and they like— Can you hear the rooster in the background?

All the boys: Shut up, roosters!

Do you have roosters?

Bradford: We have like 11 chickens. Well, no, six chickens, six hens. And a rooster.

Falcon: At first, when it started crying, it was very cool and stuff, and [then] it gets annoying….The hours that he crows are 7 o’clock in the morning and 4 o’clock in the morning.

Bradford: Yeah, he crows a lot. It’s annoying.

Falcon: And then we have two rabbits also.

You also had some inventions that you were selling. Can you tell me about those?

Richard: The back-scratcher, the bear scratch, we still sell that online. And it’s, we get requests every year around Christmas time for the bear scratch….And we’ve taken those inventions and just pushed them off to the side because we just don’t want to bring in investors on it. And that’s part of the reason we’re going into the housing market is because we can definitely make money there, hopefully get some money so we can invest in the other inventions.

When the boys got really serious about the band we thought well this is where we need to be, to support the boys. And we’ve been taking them to gigs, we took them to New York and back last year, and now they just tour in Florida. And with this new album coming out, we hope that they get a good record deal out of it.

Have you been doing other experiments like the ones you were doing with the balloon, and are you doing any storm chasing or anything like that? Or mostly just rental houses right now?

Bradford: We’re pretty much focused on the band. We’re always like rocking out 24/7.

Who wrote the “Balloon Boy No Hoax” song?

Bradford: We all did. We wanted to tell that like, how it wasn’t a hoax. That’s on our third album.

So what was your guys’ reaction when everybody was saying it was a hoax? What did you guys think?

Bradford: We were like, “What, no it’s not! What the heck, man?” We were like shocked that people would say that.

When you sing your songs, do people recognize you as the kids from the balloon incident?

The Heene Boyz are working on their third album, ‘Finger it Out’
The Heene Boyz are working on their third album, ‘Finger it Out’
Image: Courtesy of Richard Heene

Bradford: Yeah, very rarely, people will recognize us for that, but they normally just stay and rock out with us. Like, one out of 1000 I guess recognize it.

Do you find that the whole incident has helped you get publicity?

Richard: The first four years I was on probation, they wouldn’t allow me to use the “balloon boy” phrase, not that I even wanted to. But a marketing guy said that maybe we should write a song about it, so the boys got together and wrote that song.

What’s your message to people who say you’re just doing this for the publicity or that you’re taking advantage of your children for publicity or for money?

Richard: Well, I think that’s insane. I mean, people need to realize, they themselves are all out to get notoriety. And if you look at YouTube, you see how many people load up videos every day….No, I’m doing my job to raise my kids. They want to be in a band, so I support that. How many kids out there are in a band, you know? So we’re no different than anybody else in America, and if my kids want to do this for the rest of their lives, I’m going to support that.

OK, and what about you? What are you doing right now professionally?

Richard: I’m getting an interview with you. No, I’m kidding. The kids and I are embarking on building rental houses. So right now, they’re doing roofing, tiling, painting, you name it. Yesterday they painted the driveway of a house we’re working on. But we plan on going out as a business and procure houses and rent them out. And, of course, the kids, it’ll be their business when it’s all said and done.

Boys, do you want to go to college? Do you want to just finish home-schooling? What are your educational goals?

Bradford: We’d like to finish home-schooling, I’d like to finish home-schooling and stuff. I don’t really care about college, really, except for the like Julliard School of Music and that’s pretty much the only one.

And, Falcon, what about you?

Image for article titled Catching up with Balloon Boy and his family, five years later
Image: Courtesy of Richard Heene

Falcon: I like science.

You like science?

Falcon: Yeah, I like making bombs and stuff, making like chemical reactions and then pew, pew, pew.

Richard: I think he’s talking about things like vinegar and baking soda.

Is there anything that you want to do professionally?

Bradford: We like the rental houses because it’s an easy fall back.

Richard: They’ve been wanting to get a record contract, and this third album they’ve got, it’s more geared toward a little bit more radio-friendly than their previous two albums. And so after it’s complete, we’re sending that out to record companies, and they’re hoping to have a career in music that way.

The whole balloon incident is probably going to follow you around. How do you feel about the fact that that’s going to be part of your story?

Richard: We met with an individual probably six or eight months ago, and he kind of changed the whole perspective. He said, “Instead of running from it, you might as well embrace it.” And he said what you said: “It’s going to follow you around, and you might as well welcome it.” And in that sense, that’s also the reason why they did that balloon boy song. You might as well let everybody know the truth, and through song they did. But, yeah, we might as well just embrace it.

Falcon, how do you feel about it?

Falcon: I really don’t care.