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Balloon Boy: Hoax Americana?

We should have known something was up yesterday as we watched that helium-filled balloon float high above Colorado with the ease of that plastic bag in the movie "American Beauty."

The nation was transfixed for hours as it feared for the safety of 6-year-old Falcon Heene. When the story broke, it was believed that the Jiffy Pop contraption became untethered from the Heenes' Colorado home and that Falcon was inside. Word came that the family ransacked the house looking for him. Then the thing landed in a field. No Falcon. Folks freaked out that he might have fallen out. Um, no. Turns out Falcon was the one who freaked out and hid in a box in the attic.

And then came trouble.

There was the revelation of the Heenes' two appearances on the reality TV show "Wife Swap." The Larry King interview in which Falcon said, "We did this for a show." The "Today Show" interview where Falcon vomited on his dad. He did it again on "Good Morning America." And then came this:

Yeah, no wonder the cops want to have a talk with the Heene family Saturday. Was it a hoax, an accident, or the latest of example of kids doing the darnedest things? Unclear. What I do know is that this incident fits perfectly in the archives of America's "Look At Me!" publicity-obsessed culture. How else to explain the Heenes doing all those television interviews after enduring what should have been a heart-in-the-throat ordeal?

They're not the only ones to have (probably) hoaxed their way into people's hearts. Did you hear what happened at a Burlington Coat Factory store in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this week? The shoppers should have known that a showboater dressed in a leopard-print coat alighting from the back of a stretched Hummer with claims of having won the lottery was up to no good. She told excited consumers that all of their purchases were on her. She was later arrested. But by the looks of her reaction in the back of the squad car, she's earned her place in the archives, too.

By Jonathan Capehart  | October 16, 2009; 1:03 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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How can anyone with a straight face even have to ask the question of whether or not this is a HOAX. It was a hoax on the media. They're still drumming it up today.

Posted by: mtravali | October 16, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Why is any publicity always a good thing? Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned concept of infamy?

If someone decides to get herself implanted with 8 embryos, or drag his kids around chasing tornadoes before possibly accidentally sending one of them aloft in a flying saucer-shaped weather balloon, why do these irresponsible idiots always wind up with big fat checks on their own reality shows?

Why instead can't they simply never have lunch in this town again?

Posted by: Itzajob | October 16, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

It's not a helium balloon. It's a hot air balloon. Just look at the open hole in the bottom.

Did anyone actually calculate the lift of this device before going nuts?

Hot air has a lift of around 0.025 lb/cu ft, assuming 300 deg F temperature. The balloon looks like it might be as much as 20 ft across but probably closer to 15 ft. It looks like it might be 6 ft high. I can crudely estimate the volume as follows. Area = 2pi * 10 * 10 = 600 sq ft.
Volume is roughly 1/2 of area times height = 1,800 cu ft. Round up to 2,000 cu ft just to give benefit of doubt.

As you csn see the lift would be about 50 lbs using these generous numbers. In other words, a 50-lb child could hold the balloon on the ground. A lighter child would be lifted slightly unless the child were much lighter.

The very idea that such a balloon could carry a six-year child to 15,000 ft is absurd in the extreme.

Why did no one bother to do this simple calculation?

Posted by: harry4 | October 16, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

This story seemed strange from the start, but when I saw the video of the balloon landing last night, the "fishy" smell became overpowering. It is quite obvious that the balloon, with a diameter of 10-15 feet, is no where near large enough to lift the weight of the kid. Perhaps a small plywood box with some instruments and a battery, but not a plywood box with a 40-50 pound child. And as the designer and builder of the balloon, the father should have known and been able to tell the authorities that from the very beginning. He may have been concerned that he couldn't find the kid, but he absolutely knew that wherever the kid might be, it was not in that balloon.

Further, as the subsequent video of the "launch" shows, there was no box attached when the balloon lifted off. And as to the reason he was angry and yelled at the kid, his wife apparently let go of the single tether line. If one person alone was expected to be able to control this thing, it further indicates that it was incapable of lifting a child. And the fact that both of the "adults" were standing there and involved with the launch, but neither apparently knew whether or not one of the kids had somehow gotten into the balloon, is further evidence of child neglect.

Unlike hot air balloons, which are open at the bottom to allow the air inside to be continuously reheated, it is easy to see that the bottom of this balloon is sealed, as it would have to be if it used helium. So the kid would have to had somehow released that seal long enough to climb in, and then reseal the opening behind him to prevent the helium from escaping. And even if it were somehow possible for the kid to have gotten inside, he would have quickly suffocated as the helium displaced the oxygen in his lungs.

Frankly, it appears that the father has two options: Either admit that it was a complete hoax (and hopefully be held responsible for at least some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the airline delays and "rescue" efforts must have cost), or admit to child neglect and endangerment. Being so clueless as to not knowing if the kid was in the balloon before letting it lift off is irresponsible in the extreme, although he almost had to know that with the sealed balloon and no cargo box, it was simply impossible for the kid to have been in there. And the question remains, why weren't those kids in school and possibly learning some real science?

Posted by: alert4jsw | October 16, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

If this was a hoax then I am demanding as a taxpaper in Fort Collins and in Colorado that this family be legally responsible for every cent spent on the "alledged" rescue of their son.

Posted by: robar71 | October 16, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

the media was punked, what else is new?
do you believe the coverage of this non event?
there is no limit to the extreme people will go to gain a little notoriety. all these goons need their 15 minutes, and you guys,(media)trip over each other, trying to get a "story".
you so easily create monsters and leave the destroyed lives in their wake.
can anyone say jon & kate.

Posted by: ninnafaye | October 16, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse


Because your calculation is wrong.

That thing is at least 30' (I think probably 40 though) Wide and 10' Hight. Area = pi(r)^2 So that's 3.14*15^2 = 706. And, the equation for volume would be 2/3 * Area * Height, since the walls are more of a parabola than triange. That's a volume of 4650, more than double what you came up with, and would therefore have a lift of closer to 100lbs. Which, by the looks of that small, lying, child, would be more than enough to wisk him away.

Oh, but wait, you're forgetting the most obvious thing: HE WASN'T IN IT! So all the balloon had to carry was it's own weight. Helium could have easily done this.

Posted by: aaarmstr | October 16, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree with harry4, the notion that a balloon that size could lift a 6-year old child 15,000 feet in the air should have raised questions.

Anybody's whose been up in a hot air balloon can tell you: it takes a whole lot of propane, even to lift a single person off the ground a few feet.

Posted by: Gladiator2008 | October 16, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

It's not a helium balloon. It's a hot air balloon. Just look at the open hole in the bottom.

Did anyone actually calculate the lift of this device before going nuts?

Hot air has a lift of around 0.025 lb/cu ft, assuming 300 deg F temperature. The balloon looks like it might be as much as 20 ft across but probably closer to 15 ft. It looks like it might be 6 ft high. I can crudely estimate the volume as follows. Area = 2pi * 10 * 10 = 600 sq ft.
Volume is roughly 1/2 of area times height = 1,800 cu ft. Round up to 2,000 cu ft just to give benefit of doubt.

As you csn see the lift would be about 50 lbs using these generous numbers. In other words, a 50-lb child could hold the balloon on the ground. A lighter child would be lifted slightly unless the child were much lighter.

The very idea that such a balloon could carry a six-year child to 15,000 ft is absurd in the extreme.

Why did no one bother to do this simple calculation?

Sorry but you are wrong. It's not a hot air balloon. Did you see any heat source???? It was a helium balloon. And in a case where they think there's a child in possible danger I seriously doubt they break out the slid rule. Get a grip NASA!!!!

Posted by: askgees | October 16, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

A reporter on CNN Headline News said during the coverage that a child couldn't be in the balloon. She's a balloonist and said it wasn't possible. She explained someone would need to unteter the balloon; something about weight; etc. I believed her and she was right.

Strange that in this day and age CNN and other stations could not find a balloonist or someone to give them the facts but that wouldn't have made good TV.

Posted by: rlj1 | October 16, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Joke should be on the family;foot the bill for the search-gasoline,searchers'pay,everything.With their history for attention getting stunts they might consider joining the circus.

Posted by: galitamannix | October 16, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

So harry4 is askgees?

It's not a hot air balloon, there is no opening. Note also the lack of any heat source and the reflective Mylar(tm) that would preclude any kind of solar heating.

Posted by: washpost18 | October 16, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree, the family should be held responsible for the extreme costs of this "rescue" effort. But that shouldn't be a problem once they land a deal for their own REALITY SHOW.

This was no "hoax" but rather a "pitch" to all the TV show producers out there. And why not? It seems to have all the right ingredients; drama, fun experiments, vomit.

All they need is a catchy title...

Posted by: RainyDaze | October 16, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

If you don’t believe this guy is fully capable of perpetuating a hoax, watch the YouTube video “Balloon Boy on Wife Swap 3 of 5”:

Posted by: myhonestopinion | October 16, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

How stupidd and gullible our media has became. The first moment I saw the balloon I said to myself there is no way a person could be inside the balloon. How is that this multimillion talking heads can figured out? You guys are hopeless inept.

Posted by: bluelagoon21 | October 16, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Well, it looks like our first two Jeopardy contestants have come to the wrong answer on whether the balloon could have lifted up a small person.

As it turns out, the balloon was a helium balloon, not a hot air balloon, so let's say that Contestant #1 (harry4) is correct that the balloon had a displacement of 2000 cubic feet. If he is correct, then a helium balloon of that size would have a total total lift capacity of about 120 lbs.

If Contestant #2 (aaarmstr) is correct that the balloon had a displacement of about 4650 cubic feet, then the total lift capacity would be closer to 300 lbs.

Either way, it appears at first approximation that a balloon of the size shown in the pictures (based on crude estimates of its size based on TV images) could have carried the boy aloft, depending on the weight of the materials used in the balloon's construction and the actual volume of the helium carried on board.

Posted by: Pablo01 | October 16, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Seeing how this guy would go as far as to swap his wife on cable television for publicity and his son saying that they "did it for a show" I would say that it was a hoax designed for fifteen more minutes of fame and a few bucks on the talk show circuit.

Posted by: JRM2 | October 16, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

HA! Ha! Ha! Ha! Loved the Burlington Coat lady! I know it's wrong but really funny!

Posted by: 2009frank | October 16, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Heene has a great future as a Fox News talking head.

First, he obviously loves to be on television and will do anything to stay there.

Secondly, like Firman or Geraldo, he's well known to the goobers because of some prior slimy conduct.

Third, he regards truth as whatever he can con the rubes into believing.

And fourth, his kid has the sort of weird name that's really popular with Republicans. Sort of like Trig, Preggers, Snerk or the rest of Palin's brood of horney hillbillies.

Posted by: Ms_Morgan | October 16, 2009 9:14 PM | Report abuse

I have launched balloons that size and I can tell you that anyone who went to the trouble to make one, and had the experience of blowing it up and preparing it for the launch would have played with the tethers and known perfectly well that it was absolutely incapable of ever lifting a 50-lb kid. Some pics on internet make you wonder how large it was, but watch the video of the launch. Ridiculous.

Posted by: johnnormansp | October 16, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but both commentors are wrong about volume, and overlook critical details.

BTW the calculation is PiXR(2) times the average depth of a beveled disc which is a derivative that boils down to 3.3 feet ave depth.

In short, you have 1073 ft3 of potential space. Helium has a lift capacity of 0.064 lbs/ft3.

Critical details overlooked:

1. Balloons are not launched on windy days. You either see the balloon ripped up in wind or end up hearing it landed 50 to several hundred miles away. So why was this man Heene...and remember he was a 'weather expert', gassing it up with helium in the 1st place that day.

2. Because helium expands as it rises, you can only fill a balloon half full of the expensive gas. Or it goes 'POP!".

3. Why did the whole Heene family find itself in the backyard 15 feet away from the balloon with a video camera running so that all their "emotional reactions" to their purported son who was also in the backyard "sneaking on the balloon" without their knowledge. Good thing a media outlet bought that video or we would have never known how much the Heene family cared for "Little Falcon!".

4. Certain cops, though not the sheriff, are befuddled how a 6 year old could put up a ladder to get into the attic, then magically teleport the ladder back to it's storage rack downstairs.

5. With 1073 feet potential space, but only half filled with helium, you have 34 lbs lift capacity. However, you have to subtract the whole weight of the balloon material and bottom payload gondola (15 -20 lbs) to get the usable payload. of 14-19 lbs. But that is at sea level! At 4,000 feet as at Ft Collins, even less lift capacity exists.

6. Now if this was a balloon bought off the shelf at ChinaMart, Father of the missing boy might be excused for being ignorant about what the balloon could do and panicking. But in fact he is the bozo who designed and built the thing, had it floating before, and therefore knows it's maximum payload down to a gram.

7. Then there is the small matter of the phone call priorities made after the family was done "emoting" in front of the video camera about poor little Falcon being carried away. First call was to the FAA. Next was a two minute conversation with a local TV Station. Then they called 9/11.

****Since several jets had their flightpath diverted, and Heene never bothered to register his balloon - the FAA looks like it will be sending an investigative team to get to the bottom of this. I wouldn't want to be the Heenes, who fled California to avoid some bills and Court judgments. Maybe a new reality show will call on them...maybe make a whole series around "The Boy Who Wasn't There."

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | October 16, 2009 9:45 PM | Report abuse

ChrisFord1 nails it. There is no way that Mr. Heene could think the balloon he designed and built was capable of whisking his son aloft. It's all a hoax. I hope there is a responsible investigation.

Posted by: DarkMatter | October 16, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse

It appears that the parents 1) Are guilty of child endangerment both in their following of extreme weather with the children; and anywhere near this helium balloon escapade; 2) Keeping children out of school in the middle of a school week; 3) Apparently have domestic violence problems--The "wife" they swapped with said that the husband hurt or was capable of hurting his wife and the video seems to confirm that; 4) The parents appear to be teaching the children to lie and put on shows that cost the public dearly--Look at all of the resources put into trying to save the child as well as the delays at the airports.

What if someone had an emergency? I was on a cross country flight one year on I think a U.S. Airway plane that was required to land in Dayton, Ohio without explaining to us why. We learned on landing the plane was being usurped for passengers to be flown to Indiana when they could have been bused there. There was no available replacement plane for us. I was not in a hurry, but one woman was who said to the airline person who wouldn't give us any information, "My father is going to die before I get there!" He said nothing.

Posted by: MiriyamGevirtz | October 16, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse

I think the only thing that's really floated away in this instance is simple common sense. It's pretty easy to see it drifting away from various media outlets as they blather on about it. Sort of like when it's a cold day and you can 'see someone's breath'. Only in this case it's a whole lot of noise without much signal that we're hearing.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 17, 2009 1:46 AM | Report abuse

Hoax on America? America isn't the news media. I could give a ratsass.

Posted by: ekim53 | October 17, 2009 3:30 AM | Report abuse

When I happened on THE GREAT FLOATAWAY on CNN as it was under full sail, Wolf Blitzhead was all atwitter, beside himself with the excitement of the latest EXCITING RESCUE.

Just another cable network hype. Another opportunity to broadcast fear among the people, titillate the masses with material of no importance, take their minds off our real problems.

If it was a hoax, then CNN and the other no-brain, no integrity networks deserve it richly.

I personally am fed up with spending taxpayer dollars on all kinds of nutty rescues, such the unprepared group who climbed Mount Rainier in the dead of winter without proper equipment, or the three teenagers who "wandered" across the border into Iran recently. Millions spent on both, and obviously more to come.

But CNN, FOX, and MSNBC love it all, especially Wolfie Boy. It keeps us peasants occupied and our minds off real national problems, such as managed news.

Posted by: kdhcherry | October 17, 2009 6:22 AM | Report abuse

I can proudly say that I had not even heard about this until I clicked on the link for this story. I am also an American citizen living in the DC area.

Thus, contrary to this story, the nation was not "transfixed for hours" on Thursday.

Posted by: dog12 | October 17, 2009 6:26 AM | Report abuse

They really didn't know. I'm convinced.

And I have some wonderful oceanfront property I bought just last week in North Dakota. Great house! Beautiful view! Come visit!

Posted by: kcbob | October 17, 2009 6:45 AM | Report abuse

What's interesting are the comments about the inability of the balloon to raise to any altitude the weight of a child, and the apparent lack of structure in the balloon to host a child size object. The media didn't ask any critical questions along those lines as it tracked the "balloon boy" for two hours. I'm in the camp that says that the family clearly knew the balloon was incapable of doing what it told the police and the media it had done.

For those of you who question the media's ability or willingness to do simple due diligence on the assertions of the family, preferring instead to run with sensational, but essentially untrue, story lines for several hours, welcome to the club that sees our media for what it has become: a collection of teleprompter readers, where the teleprompter scripts are written by ratings hungry producers with little or no training, or regard, for journalism.

Anyone who has personal experience in any topic covered by the media knows that the stories reported are simplified, generalized, fine tuned to appeal to the widest audience, and replete with misinformation and often, political slant. As someone who follows professional auto racing, for instance, I can tell you that virtually no story I've seen in the past ten years in the general media concerning any important issue in that sport has been accurate. Also, reporting on military operations and weaponry, another area where I have good knowledge, is sadly lacking accuracy.

This balloon story should be a wake up call to many of you who think you are generally receiving accurate information off the boob tube.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | October 17, 2009 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Whether an outright hoax or a coupla hucksters taking advantage of a sudden opportunity, what we've watched is two truly wretched human beings exposing their dysfunctional lives for all to see. Phonies to the core of their beings. Child services should be investigating their fitness to be parents.

The bigger story and the real dysfunction, dishonesty, hucksterism, and hypocrisy is the media coverage. From the start, by not ever asking whether that contraption could possibly lift a child and fly him 50 miles through the air, to Wolfe Blitzer's blowing right past the real story during his one-hour non-interview of the family as a sub for Larry King, to the incredible spectacle of a child throwing up on live TV morning shows, while neither the parents nor the network interviewers remotely consider calling the whole thing off in the interest of the child.

TV "journalism" has reached a new low with this sorry episode. But stay tuned. We can be sure it has not plumbed the depths.

Posted by: tbarksdl | October 17, 2009 7:20 AM | Report abuse

I have watched a number of the videos of this family and I can't help but believe that they are a bunch of liars, and need to reimburse the taxpayers of Colorado for this sick hoax!!!

Posted by: michael60761 | October 17, 2009 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Probably the worse thing to be done to Mr. Heene is for the media as a whole to ignore him. Let Fort Collins and federal authorities investigate the balloon incident or hoax (which I believe more and more to be the case).

Posted by: creatia52 | October 17, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

The original coverage was understandable. At least the media showed some compassion believing there was a little boy inside the balloon. It is the continuing follow-ups on Friday and beyond that indicate media hype. The life of this family has been changed forever because of irresponsible media. Wait for the proof before castigating this family.

Posted by: Kansas28 | October 17, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Sad but, that was setup and reckless. Poor kids and what silly parents to use their kids like that. Suppose he had been in the basket going up by mistake?-dumb just dumb.

Posted by: Scar1 | October 17, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

It was a hoax:

Posted by: atlasfugged | October 17, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Palin/Heene 2012!

Campaign motto: "We'll pimp our kids for your vote!"

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | October 18, 2009 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Who's this "we" you speak of, kimo sabe? That's lazy sentence construction. Meanwhile, suspicious of coincidence as I am, I'm going to go with hoax.

Posted by: daphne5 | October 19, 2009 2:00 AM | Report abuse

New reality series -

Balloon Boy and Kate PLUS 8

Falcon Balloon Crest



Fashion Police - The case of the Loony Leopard Lady

Posted by: kare1 | October 19, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Now this was just the worst that the parents would use their children like this. But, when you see children being used in Hollywood and pageants and the like-this is no different. The young boy was probably tired and had enough of the lies. Then his Dad seemed to coach him and lead him in what to say or in this case lead him to say what any child would say. "No, Dad you told me to say: its a show!" Dad!!! I am sick blah, blah OMG!!
It made me sick just looking at it... what a scream.

I hope the Judge just flips on both parents. Who would do such a thing?
It was not entertainment at all. Suppose that poor kid did try to get in that stupid ass contraption? What idiots? This whole year has been one of goofy people and their dumb actions. Let us all pray..for all to get a grip!!!

Posted by: Scar1 | October 19, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

This sorry incident was a double hoax, perpetrated by the Heenes and the mainstream media. First responders were obliged to give Heene the benefit of the doubt but news organizations were not required to report on nothing else. I understand it is hard to program 24 hours of "news" when coverage of two wars, the struggle for gay rights, the mortgage meltdown, and malfeasance on Wall Street are taboo subjects but an entire weekend wasted on a balloon floating through the air has to be the sorry nadir of American broadcast news.

Posted by: dnahatch1 | October 19, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

A fun litte distraction. Can we get back to healthcare, global warming, and post imperialism?

Posted by: tommykirchmeier | October 19, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

In ten seconds, I knew it was a hoax.

The question is, why did every trained journalist assume otherwise?

The whole episode demonstrated that journalists would rather be lied to for a good story than actually know the truth.

Time to fire them all and start over.

Posted by: Dollared | October 20, 2009 9:29 PM | Report abuse

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