A priest in Brazil who took to the skies under a cluster of helium balloons to raise money for a charity in his parish was reported missing somewhere in the southern Atlantic yesterday after his makeshift flying device got caught in crosswinds and veered off course.
Rescue helicopters and small fishing boats were searching for Father Adelir Antonio de Carli after pieces of balloon were found floating in the ocean off the coast of Santa Catarina state in the south of the country.
"Without a doubt they will find him alive," said Denise Gallas, the treasurer of the Sao Cristovao church. "He's alive somewhere out there."
Father Carli, a noted daredevil who enjoys skydiving, took off from the port city of Paranagua, north of Santa Catarina, on Sunday afternoon. His ambition was to break the record – 19 hours – for helium-propelled flight. Footage of the effort showed the priest smiling as he wrapped himself in an insulation blanket before pulling on a flight suit, helmet and parachute.
He made the sign of the cross as his seat soared up into the air under a cluster of green, red, white and yellow balloons. Ms Gallas told reporters that the priest reached an altitude of about 20,000 feet before descending to about 8,200 feet.
His plan was to fly almost 500 miles to Dourados, north-west of Paranagua, to raise money for a spiritual rest stop in his parish that he thought might be useful for truckers rumbling in and out of the port.
The winds, however, pushed him south-east. He had a GPS device to let him know what was happening and a satellite phone to stay in touch with the Paranagua port authority. Communications went down, however, once he veered 30 miles off the coast. When the authorities heard nothing from him for the next eight hours, they launched a search party.
On Monday, firefighters from the coastal town of Sao Francisco do Sul found pieces of balloon floating near the beach. Nobody, however, took that as a sign that all was lost. Authorities said the area was dotted with small islands, any of which could have served as a refuge for the missing priest. He could also be bobbing somewhere on the ocean – the seat he used is lined with airtight pockets that can form a makeshift life raft. Father Carli was carrying cereal bars, energy pills and water when he took off.
"Depending on his physical fitness and how badly, if at all, he was injured, he could probably survive in the water for at least five days, maybe a bit more," said Paulo Eduardo Neves, a commander of one of the fire departments involved in the search.
Helium balloon stunts became popular in the 1980s after Larry Walters, from Los Angeles, lifted himself three miles into the air while sitting on a lawn chair.
Keeping control of any balloon-propelled craft is always difficult, however. When Father Carli conducted a test flight for his adventure in January, he was blown helplessly over the border into Argentina.