FORT COLLINS, Colo. - A homemade balloon aircraft floated away from a yard in Colorado after a 6-year-old boy was seen climbing in, setting off a frantic scramble by the military and law enforcement before the balloon slowly touched without the boy inside.
Kathy Messick, Larimer County sheriff's spokeswoman, said one of the boy's two older brothers saw him get into the box or basket, which was attached with pegs. The balloon was owned by the boy's parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, and tethered behind the family's home.
Messick said search teams were scouring the area from the house in the direction the balloon flew. She said investigators are looking into every possibility, including whether the boy, Falcon, was ever in the balloon.
The bizarre scene played out live on television as the balloon rotated slowly in the wind, tipping precariously at times before gliding to the ground in a field. The craft was airborne for more than two hours and flew 50 miles through two counties.
Bob Licko, 65, a neighbor, said he was leaving home when he heard commotion in the backyard.
He said he saw two boys on the roof 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.
Licko said the boy's mother seemed distraught and that the boy's father was running around the house.
In a 2007 interview with The Denver Post, Richard Heene described becoming a storm chaser after a tornado ripped off a roof where he was working as a contractor and said he once flew a plane around Hurricane Wilma's perimeter in 2005.
Pursuing bad weather was a family activity with the children coming along as the father sought evidence to prove his theory that rotating storms create their own magnetic fields.
Although Richard said he has no specialized training, they had a computer tracking system in their car and a special motorcycle.
The Heene family appeared twice on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap," most recently in February.
"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," it says.
While the balloon was airborne, Colorado Army National Guard sent an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and was preparing to send a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. They also were working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to weigh it down.
But the balloon landed on its own in a dirt field. Sheriff's deputies secured it to keep it in place, even tossing shovelfuls of dirt on one edge.
The episode led to a brief shutdown of northbound departures from one of the nation's busiest airports, said a controller at the Federal Aviation Administration's radar center in Longmont, Colo.
FAA canceled all northbound takeoffs between 1 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. MDT, said Lyle Burrington, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative at the center. The balloon was about 15 miles northwest of the airport at that time.
Before the departure shutdown, controllers had been vectoring planes taking off in that direction away from the balloon, Burrington said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency tracked the balloon through reports from pilots.
Neighbor Lisa Eklund described seeing the balloon pass.
"We were sitting eating, out looking where they normally shoot off hot air balloons. My husband said he saw something. It went over our rooftop. Then we saw the big round balloonish thing, it was spinning," she said.
"By the time I saw it, it traveled pretty fast," she said.
The story gripped the television news networks, which set aside other programming to follow the balloon and speculate on the safety of the boy.