Do-It-Yourself Ballooning

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KUSA TV / Handout / Reuters

A video grab shows a police officer chasing the small homemade helium balloon, originally believed to contain a 6-year-old boy, as it lands in Fort Collins, Colo., on Oct. 15, 2009

In what will surely be one of the strangest stories from the year, 6-year-old Falcon Heene from Fort Collins, Colo., was thought to have taken flight on Oct. 15 in a helium-filled homemade flying saucer that flew as high as 7,000 ft. (2,000 m) before returning to earth some 50 miles (80 km) from his home. Thankfully, Falcon was discovered hours later, reportedly hiding in a box in the family's attic. While his ill-advised adventure never really got off the ground, there is a rich history of do-it-yourself balloon travel — and many of these voyages do have tragic endings.

In a fitting coincidence, the first known manned balloon flight occurred 226 years to the day before Falcon's supposed flight. On Oct. 15, 1783, French scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier ascended 84 ft. (25 m) off the ground — the length of the rope attached to the vessel. He followed this tentative milestone with the first untethered flight on Nov. 21, reaching an altitude of 3,000 ft. (900 m). But de Rozier would also have the inglorious distinction of becoming ballooning's first fatality. During a 1785 attempt to cross the English Channel, de Rozier's balloon suddenly deflated and crashed before even reaching the French coast, killing him and his passenger.

While the branch of ballooning that de Rozier pioneered became safer and more refined (the first modern hot-air balloon appeared in 1960), it didn't deter a fringe element from testing some dubious designs of their own. Perhaps the most famous of these is the strange 1982 voyage of Larry Walters, known in the press as Lawn Chair Larry. On July 2, Walters, a truck driver from Long Beach, Calif., attached 42 helium-filled weather balloons to an aluminum lawn chair, and with a bottle of soda, a CB radio and a BB gun, lifted off in the makeshift craft, dubbed Inspiration I. Airline pilots were stunned to see Walters float outside their windows, as the chair made it as high as 16,000 ft. (4,800 m) before Walters shot out some of the balloons. His descent was anything but graceful as the balloons struck power lines on the way down, blacking out a stretch of Long Beach homes. Still, Walters survived, enabling the FAA to slap him with a $4,000 fine for airspace violations during the stunt (later reduced to $1,500).

Lawn Chair Larry's unlikely flight spawned many imitators. In 2008, Oregon man Kent Couch successfully took his own balloon-powered lawn chair on a 235-mile (378 km) trek across the state, traveling across the Idaho state line. This was Couch's third trip — his second stopped just short of the state line, while the first ended with him parachuting from the chair after popping too many balloons.

A 2008 attempt by a Brazilian priest did not end as well. Father Adelir de Carli lifted off in a chair attached to 1,000 helium balloons in an attempt to raise funds for a rest stop in the Brazilian port city of Paranaguá, but supporters lost contact with him after he was blown off course. Rescuers searching his probable flight path first found only a bunch of brightly colored balloons, leading to hope Carli had parachuted to safety. However, parts of his body were found nearly two months later and positively identified through DNA testing.

For their part, the Heene family had a keen interest in meteorology and looking for extra terrestrials, which might explain the unique, saucer-shaped design of the family's makeshift craft. Still, the balloon was reportedly never designed to have passengers aboard, a fact that was clear to anyone who watched it careen erratically across the Colorado skies. After almost two hours of nearly continuous coverage of the balloon's flight, it appears the incident will result in little more than an afternoon of media frenzy. The Heene family may share a hobbyist's appreciation of ballooning, but surely they'll be grateful that their 6-year-old never got any firsthand experience miles above the ground.