Balloon boys and backyard experimental aircraft construction

UPDATE: As the world knows by now, Falcon Heene, the boy now famous for appearing to have climbed aboard, launched and ridden for two hours in a backyard tinfoil balloon saucer craft, came down out of the attic of his family home this evening where he was hiding the whole time. Falcon is thankfully alive and well. Welcome back to the earth you never left, Falcon!


Colorado authorities are right now searching for 6-year-old Falcon Heene or his 8-year-old brother, Ryo, one of whom was thought to have climbed aboard a balloon-craft built in the Heene backyard by their storm-chaser father, Richard Heene. The helium-filled car-sized foil disc floated into the sky above their Fort Collins home sometime around noon, embarking on a two-hour herky-jerky tour of the northern front range followed by news and rescue crews before settling in a soft recently turned field.

Roland Herwig at the Federal Aviation Administration told the Colorado Independent it’s perfectly legal to build backyard experimental air crafts of all sorts. Regulations kick in, he said, only when parties involved decide to launch the craft. That includes the whole gamut, he said, “from Boy Scouts letting bunches of balloons go to experimental craft like the kind you’re referring to [built by the Heenes].”

Herwig points interested parties to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations on Aeronautics and Space. It’s the “notice requirements,” he suggests, that might best pertain to the case of the Fort Collins balloon boy.

Would be launchers have to provide notice 6 to 24 hours ahead of time. Of course Ryo or Falcon’s launching of the balloon craft was not planned.

(a) Prelaunch notice: Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate an unmanned free balloon unless, within 6 to 24 hours before beginning the operation, he gives the following information to the FAA ATC facility that is nearest to the place of intended operation…

(d) Launch notice: Each person operating an unmanned free balloon shall notify the nearest FAA or military ATC facility of the launch time immediately after the balloon is launched.

Requirements for registering such crafts are located at Title 14, Section 47.33 of the FAA code.

Slate weighed in with a piece answering similar questions.

Is it legal to pilot a homemade balloon? Sure. Anyone can construct and fly a homemade engineless aircraft that’s less than 155 pounds without permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. You don’t even need a pilot’s license. The balloon that sailed across Colorado appeared to be extremely lightweight and would probably qualify. If the aircraft is more than 155 pounds, you need a license to pilot the balloon and FAA certification. First, an FAA inspector comes to look at the aircraft. If it looks airworthy, you can begin test flights, with certain restrictions—you have to stay within a limited geographical area, for example, and can’t fly at night. If that goes well and the inspector approves your flight log, you can fly your experimental aircraft anywhere in the United States.

It’s not exactly clear what the Heene family intended to do with the flying saucer-like contraption. But the family was party to a “wife swap” reality show and in its description of the family, ABC reported that when the Heenes “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.”

The family chases storms reportedly not just for thrills but “to prove Richard’s theories about magnetic fields and gravity.”

According to the New York Times, Larimer County Emergency Manager Erik Nilsson said the Heene boy suspected to have crawled into the craft was nowhere in the craft when it landed.

“The good news is he’s no longer in danger from a balloon crash. The bad news is we don’t know where he is.”

Mr. Nilsson told the Times that “dozens” of law enforcement officers were searching for the boy in his neighborhood. “I am hoping the scenario is that he is scared of punishment and does not want to be found.”

Image: Lisa Eklund

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