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Missing Priest Puts Focus on Cluster Ballooning


It's been four days since a Brazilian priest lifted off into the air, harnessed to hundreds of brightly colored helium balloons. Reverend Adelir Antonio de Carli was staging the flight as a fundraiser for charity. But strong winds pulled him off course out to sea. He used a satellite phone to tell his team he was descending over the ocean. He hasn't been heard from or seen since, but a cluster of balloons was found floating in the Atlantic.

We were curious about this sport of cluster ballooning and we've reached out to John Ninomiya in San Diego to find out more. And John, I gather that you are a part of a very tiny community of cluster balloonists.


Mr. JOHN NINOMIYA (Ballooning Expert): That's correct. To my knowledge, there are about three people who have - who do cluster ballooning on a continuing basis worldwide and then there are a few people here and there who have done one or two flights.

BLOCK: And had you heard about this priest in Brazil before?

Mr. NINOMIYA: Yes, I had. I actually received an e-mail from a gentleman, a hot air balloonist, down in that area and have been following it.

BLOCK: It sounds like he had taken paragliding lessons some time ago and his instructor told the Associated Press that the priest was headstrong and anxious. He thought this flight was a tragedy foretold. That would sound like he might have been a terribly good candidate for this kind of sport.

Mr. NINOMIYA: This type of sport is - it's not hard to do, in terms of just rigging up the required amount of balloons to some sort of harness or basket or things like that. But where the skill involved comes in - is just knowing the appropriate conditions to fly in as far as meteorology.


BLOCK: You're saying, it's not hard to do but you wouldn't want just anybody to go out and strap themselves to a bunch of balloons, I think?

Mr. NINOMIYA: That's very true. And the stories that you hear about people just deciding to try this, sort of, out of the blue aren't very good. The one currently in Brazil is probably the worst of them, but it is a dangerous thing to do and the possibility of injury, or potentially death, is definitely there if you don't know what you're doing.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Let's explain a little bit how this works. I've been looking at the images of this and the balloons look pretty big. How big are they?

Mr. NINOMIYA: Well, in the case of Fr. de Carli, I understand that he was using more of a very large toy balloon-sized balloon, maybe a couple of foot diameter sort of size range. When I do this myself, I tend to use somewhat larger balloon, 4 to 7 foot in size, more of a weather-balloon-type balloon.

BLOCK: The priest in Brazil apparently had GPS, had a sat phone, also would have had a parachute? Does that sound right?

Mr. NINOMIYA: Yes, that's pretty much equivalent to what I carry. I generally carry a radio so that I can contact my crew on the ground. I also carry an aircraft frequency radio so that if I come near to any controlled air space, I can also talk with the tower at the airport. In terms of the most important for control, is water ballast. You've seen the pictures of the old-time gas balloons that are carrying sand bags as ballasts, I carry a water - 100 pounds of it or so, and what that allows me to so is when I'm descending, having burst balloons to come down, if I need to level out or go back up, I can release some of that water. I become lighter and I go back up.

BLOCK: When you're lifting off with all these balloons above you, what's the sensation? Can you describe it?

Mr. NINOMIYA: Oh, it's a really wonderful thing; I really enjoy it. I remember as a kid seeing the French film, the red balloon in which a little boy at the end of the film floats away under a big bouquet of balloons over the city of Paris. And since I've been a kid, for seeing that, that's something that I've always wanted to do.

BLOCK: It must a rush I would think?

Mr. NINOMIYA: It's - there's nothing like it. It's totally silent and you just see your legs dangling down below. You see everything. It's wonderful.

BLOCK: Well, John Ninomiya, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. NINOMIYA: Well, thank you for having me.

BLOCK: John Ninomiya is cluster balloonist in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.