A balloon similar to the one pictured was rescued. Photo: Fairfax NZ
Google has promised to reimburse a rescue helicopter crew for an unnecessary flight after one of their Wi-Fi balloons falling into the sea sparked an emergency response.
New Zealand Police received a call at 11.25am on Friday from a member of public reporting that a plane had crashed into the sea off the Hurunui River mouth, near Cheviot.
He mistook the balloon for a plane because a local pilot's aircraft had a parachute attached.
Locals took boats out to investigate, while police, Waimakariri-Ashley Lifeboat volunteers, Search and Rescue and the Westpac rescue helicopter responded.
The balloon was found floating in the sea.
Police notified Google, as the balloon was too large for a local fisherman to pull out, and the sea was "quite rough".
Thirty Project Loon balloons were launched into the stratosphere from Tekapo in New Zealand in June last year.
The helium-filled, 12-metre-high polyethylene balloons transmit free Wi-Fi signals. Their purpose is to reach people living in remote areas.
Google spokesman Johnny Luu said the balloons were designed to fly for about 100 days. One had been around the world three times.
When the balloons were brought down, research teams tried to guide them close to land so they could be retrieved.
They co-ordinated with local air traffic control authorities.
Google did not want to inconvenience emergency services, Luu said.
"We will get in touch with the Westpac rescue helicopter crew to reimburse them for the mistaken rescue flight," he said.
The balloon was recovered, Luu said.
Sergeant Colin Stewart commended the member of public for notifying police.
While the emergency response was "significant", information that a plane had crashed meant police would "throw every resource at it to ensure public safety".
A rescue helicopter spokesman said it was nice to learn Google would cover their costs.
Google aims to have a full ring of 300 to 400 balloons circling the globe to offer continuous service to a targeted area.
Most launched balloons were recovered after landing, but some had been lost to sea and drifted as far as South America.
The balloons were designed to float in water and fitted with transponders to help ensure they did not pose a hazard to aircraft.