Internationally renowned hot air balloon pilot Rick Walczak, of Carterton. PHOTO/FILE

HAYLEY GASTMEIER

hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz

Where in the world is Iwi the Kiwi? Well, apparently the iconic hot air balloon is being held for ransom in the United States.

Internationally renowned hot air balloon pilot Rick Walczak, of Carterton, hasn’t seen his $100,000 balloon for four months.

The unique Kiwi-shaped balloon went missing while in transit from the United Kingdom to Taiwan.

After spending “thousands” on a frustrating and fruitless search for the giant New Zealand icon, Walczak took to posting the suspected theft on social media on Tuesday.

Within 24 hours, his spirits were lifted with news that Iwi may have been located in the United States.

“I have strong information that Iwi the Kiwi has been found in the USA – we are excited and waiting on further information and proof,” he posted to Facebook.

“We are currently in negotiations to get him back safely after four months … I should know if the balloon found is Iwi the Kiwi in the next few days.”

Speaking yesterday from Santiago in Chile, Walczak told the Times-Age that the balloon had been travelling the world fulltime, since being built in 2012.

“He’s never been in any location for a long time because he’s always in a shipping container going from one place to another.”

Walczak, a hot air balloon pilot with 43 years’ experience, said Iwi had missed appointments due to his disappearance.

“One month went by, two months went by, I was banging my head about what to do after three months, and by the fourth month I’d just had enough so I put him on social media.”

He said it was thanks to social media and the many international media outlets that had picked up the story that a long-awaited result was in sight.

Walczak, who designed the balloon with a friend, confirmed it cost $2000 per hour when it was in the air.

“Special shaped balloons only have a limited life and that’s why you don’t put a lot of people in them – they’re not made to lift people, they’re just made to lift themselves and maybe two people.”

He said Iwi was essentially “an expensive machine” which gave people all over the globe great pleasure.

No matter where he was in the world, Iwi was guaranteed to attract every New Zealand expat within range.

Building it was fulfilling a long-lived dream for Walczak, who had owned several balloons before.

“It was something to give back to the country – I mean, if you’re going to build a balloon, what better balloon to build than a giant kiwi, New Zealand’s icon.”

The balloon has featured in the Wairarapa Balloon Festival.

Walczak, who has been living in Chile for the past four years, made history in 2004 when he completed the first hot air balloon traverse of the Tararua Range.