Colorado went to huge lengths to save balloon boy Falcon Heene

The National Guard deployed helicopters and Denver airport delayed flights thinking Falcon Heene was in a runaway balloon. He was safe at home the whole time, but many questions remain unanswered.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Heene family is pictured in this undated publicity photograph from the ABC reality series "Wife Swap." Shown are Richard Heene, his wife Mayumi and their sons Bradford, Falcon (c.) and Ryan with a homemade helium balloon in the background.
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Colorado National Guard Col. Chris Petty was preparing to board his Black Hawk helicopter Thursday afternoon for what could have been a rescue attempt straight from the screens of Hollywood.

There had been talk of suspending someone beneath the helicopter in a desperate bid to save a boy who was reportedly trapped in an experimental helium balloon flying thousands of feet above the Colorado plains.

Then, word came: Six-year-old Falcon Heene was not in the balloon, as his brother had insisted to police. Instead, he was found hiding in a box above the Heene's garage in Fort Collins.

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What would Petty have to say to the boy, the Associated Press asked: "I'm really glad you're alive, I'm very thankful, but I'd sure like to know the rest of the story."

So would the rest of America.

Nine-year-old Ryo Heene's conviction, repeated several times to the police, that his brother was in a box suspended beneath the shiny flying saucer being tracked (dare we say) falcon-like by news helicopters set momentous events in motion.

Denver International Airport stopped all northbound flights from 1:00 to 1:15 p.m. local time.

• Search teams – including officials on horseback and ATVs – were dispatched to the Heene's neighborhood and to a nearby airport where eyewitnesses said they saw something falling from the Odd Flying Object.

The Army National Guard deployed one helicopter, a Kiowa, and was preparing to launch Petty's Black Hawk. It was also talking to pilots of local ultralight aircraft to coordinate rescue strategies – such as dropping weights onto the balloon to make it descend.

There's been no talk of treating the Heene's like New Hampshire treated teenager Scott Mason. It fined him $25,000 for having to rescue him from the side of Mount Washington. Officials said he should have known better than attempt a difficult 17-mile hike alone.

But there is still the question of why the truth didn't come to light sooner.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Larimer County – where the balloon began its voyage – said he didn't want to make a conjecture, but "this is not the first time when we have been involved in searching for some child and once the child realizes people are looking for them, they hide because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble."

That's precisely what happened, the family said in a news conference. Falcon said he hid in the attic above the garage – playing with toys and even talking a nap – because he was afraid he would be punished by his father, presumably for setting the balloon loose.

But a New York Times blog suggests that "there might have been a bit of collusion among the Heene brothers," to cover up.

Moreover, neighbor Bob Licko told the AP he saw two boys on the roof of the Heene's house with a camera, commenting about their brother.

"One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air," Licko said.

The family has been in the spotlight before.

Father Richard has attracted attention locally for being a tornado chaser – and bringing his kids along, something that colleagues have criticized as reckless.

As a science buff, he was apparently building the balloon as a backyard experiment – an activity that seems to have been completely legal.

The family has also been on the ABC show "Wife Swap," in which the wives in two families seen as polar opposites switch roles.

Richard's wife, Mayumi, switched places with a Karen Martel, whose husband runs Childproofers Network of Connecticut. The show's website summarized Martel's experience in the Heene house this way: "[Martel] is shocked as the Heene kids jump off banisters and run wild."

Perhaps today, she is the least shocked person in America.

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