Balloon Family: Reality Stars, Thrill Seekers

10/15/2009 at 06:35 PM EDT

Balloon Family: Reality Stars, Thrill Seekers
The Heene family
They're an unusual family at the center of a bizarre story: Their UFO-looking helium balloon soared from their home at the same time their 6-year-old son disappeared – with the boy later found safely at home after a nationally televised air-and-ground search.

So who are the Heenes of Fort Collins, Colo.?

Reality TV fans may remember Richard and wife Mayumi from the ABC show Wife Swap. During their episode, which aired on the show's premiere in October 2008, they switched with the Martels, a Connecticut family with a childproofing business. The family's segment proved so popular that viewers voted them back onto a March 2009 episode – this time with a St. Augustine, Fla., couple whose wife earns a living as a psychic.

Even by the outrageous standards of reality television, the Heenes stand out for their thrill-seeking lifestyle that sometimes put their own children on the edge of danger. As Mayumi told the Coloradoan newspaper last year: "Wife Swap was just another adventure for us as a family."

Storm Chasers

According to published reports and those who know the family, Richard is an amateur meteorologist with an intense passion for tracking storms and chasing tornadoes. Every spring during tornado season, Richard loads his wife, Mayumi, and their three boys, Bradford, 10, Ryo, 8, and Falcon – the boy at the center of the balloon ordeal – into the family SUV and head off across the countryside in search of nasty weather.

Heene, whose research will reportedly soon be published in a meteorological journal, has long theorized that tornados generate powerful magnetic fields. To test out his hypothesis, he often roars into the rain and blasts of wind on his motorcycle, festooned with monitoring equipment, which he keeps in the back of his vehicle. Once on the bike, Mayumi follows her husband as he speeds down the rain-soaked highway.

"To some people it may sound dangerous," Heene once told reporters. "But my family is never put in harm's way. I'm the only one ever in danger." Heene claims that he only chases the lowest grade tornadoes, adding that he always keeps his family far enough away from risk.

Neighbor: Dad's Unusual

The Heene's neighbors in Fort Collins, Colo., say that family is well liked and that Richard can often be seen tinkering on one of his latest inventions.

The homemade helium-filled balloon that authorites had inititally feared swept Falcon away is similar to others his father has constructed in the backyard of their three-bedroom home.

"He's unusual, yes," one neighbor told reporters. "Your typical inventor, amateur scientist. ... But everyone likes him. They're a great family."

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