Oct. 15, 2009 -- Just what was that thing? For a while, nobody watching could tell.
Authorities in Larimer County, Colo., were taken on the strangest of possible chases today by a silvery balloon, shaped like a flying saucer, which went flying thousands of feet over the plains northeast of Denver.
Authorities at first said 6-year-old Falcon Heene was riding an "experimental aircraft" built by his father, Richard Heene. But the Larimer County sheriff, James Alderden, said late today that the boy was safe at home.
One of his brothers, according to Alderden, had said the boy had climbed into a battery compartment on the bottom of the balloon. But during a news conference, Alderden was interrupted by a page saying the earlier information was erroneous.
The family -- Richard, his wife, Mayumi, and their three young sons -- had twice appeared on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap."
Richard Heene was described on the show as a storm chaser, a former weather forecaster who also was interested in experimental aircraft.
"When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm," said promotional copy from 2008 on the "Wife Swap" Web site. "In this ultimate swap, the Heenes swap lives with a psychic mom who speaks to the dead and can control the weather, her husband and her children -- who believe they are destined to be stars."
People familiar with experimental aircraft said it was hard to tell whether the craft over Colorado today qualified as one.
"If you were to build something like this, it would need to be registered with the FAA," said Dick Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wis. "It would have to be inspected, and it would have to have markings showing its identity."
In a statement issued while the craft was airborne, the Larimer County Sheriff's office gave some information on the craft.
"It is currently at approximately 7,000 feet in elevation, and the elevation in the eastern plains of Colorado is approximately 5,000, which puts the balloon at about 2,000 feet above the ground. It is believed the device could rise to 10,000 feet," the sheriff's office said.
"Because the balloon is helium-filled, it will not come down on its own," said the statement. "It is very light-built with construction string and would not be able to withstand a hard landing."
Later, after the vessel had landed and his son had been found safe, Richard Heene himself gave more details about what it was.
"We were working on an experimental craft," he told reporters. "I call it the 3D LAV, a low-altitude vehicle for people to pull out of their garage and hover above traffic for about 50 to 100 feet. It's still the very early stages of the invention."
Ship Was Leaking Helium
Whatever it was, people who thought Heene's young son was aboard as it floated over Colorado seemed anxious to see it land safely.
"We've been inundated with phone calls with people from all across the country suggesting how to get the balloon down," said Rita Davis, a spokeswoman for Police Services in Fort Collins, Colo.
The Heene family has a Fort Collins address, but it is not actually within the city limits or her department's jurisdiction.
It was apparent from helicopter video that the ship was leaking helium. It gradually descended and slowed, and a law enforcement officer was able to grab one of several tethers hanging from it as it came down to the ground.
Temperatures at its highest altitude would have been below zero. Prevailing wind speeds could have approached 100 miles per hour, said the Experimental Aircraft Association.
The flight ended in a field near the farming town of Hudson, Colo., northeast of Denver. The ship had been airborne for more than two hours.
"I guess the good news is that he's fine," said Alderden.