Two killed in Westport microlight crash
DEIDRE MUSSEN, JOELLE DALLY AND CAROLINE KING
A thick sea fog may have contributed to a fatal microlight crash near Westport last night, says a resident who lives near the scene.
Police have not officially named the victims, but friends have confirmed Westport man Roger Smith and his passenger, Cole Ashby, died in the crash.
A Carters Beach resident said she and her neighbour saw the microlight flying over the beach last night.
She noticed thick sea fog roll in about 9pm and last heard the microlight about 9.30pm, but was then unable to see it.
''The fog was in by then.''
The plane did not sound to be in trouble and she did not hear the crash.
''It must have been the fog,'' she said, speculating on the accident's cause.
''We heard it flying around and didn't think anything of it.''
Smith, the microlight's owner, was frequently flying along the beach, she said.
It was possible he was teaching Ashby.
Smith and his wife, Marilyn, who works at the Westport Early Learning Centre, have three grown-up daughters living locally with their own children.
''He's such a loved granddad,'' the woman said of Smith.
The woman said she went down to the beach this morning after a friend told her the tragic news.
''I could see the microlight just sticking out of the water. It was all broken up,'' she said.
''It was really sad this morning seeing the hearse come out and wondering why the police were here."
She was unsure who found the wreckage this morning but said horse trainers regularly had their trotters on the beach early in the morning.
Ashby's father told the Westport News that his son, 25, a machine operator at a coalmine, was a passenger in the microlight.
His son went flying whenever someone offered him a ride, he said.
"He loves it. He loves anything like that ... loves bikes, helicopters, aeroplanes, cars; he loves them all."
The two men were on a recreational flight, not a hunting trip as had been reported, when the crash happened, the father said.
He did not know whether last night's fog had contributed to the crash.
"The fog was really bad last night, but it could have been a mechanical malfunction, it could have been anything."
The pilot had many years' experience and was a good pilot, he said.
"I don't think he's going to fly into the fog. Fog's something you keep well clear of in an aeroplane," he said.
Westport residents were in ''disbelief'' over the deaths, Buller Mayor Pat McManus said today.
The microlight's wreckage was found below the high-tide mark at Carters Beach, close to Westport Airport, about 9.30am today, Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand spokesman Michael Flyger said.
The centre was notified about 8pm yesterday that a microlight with two men on board was overdue, he said.
A search began early today, but a member of public found the wreckage just as it got under way.
"Two deceased persons were found with the wreckage,'' Flyger said.
He understood conditions were foggy last night. The bodies were removed today.
The wreckage was removed from the beach about 12.15pm today.
Sergeant Steve Baddock, of Westport, said the plane had been taken to a secure unit for inspection by the Civil Aviation Authority.
He said it appeared the tide had already gone in and out after the crash, he said.
High tide was at 2am today and low tide was at 8.08am.
It was coming in again as the wreckage was removed, Baddock said.
Conditions were clear when the men took off last night, but fog rolled in soon after and cleared early today.
McManus said news of the deaths had quickly spread through Westport.
He said both men, who were friends, were from long-term Westport families.
''It has a big impact on small communities. It came as quite a shock,'' he said.
''They were pretty close to home.''
He knew one of the men personally.
McManus said it was another blow for the West Coast, still reeling from nine deaths in a plane crash at Fox Glacier in September 2010 and 29 deaths in the Pike River coalmine disaster in November 2010.
Yesterday's fog was unusual for this time of year, especially after a hot day, he said.
''The sea fog just rolled in from nowhere,'' he said.
''I wondered if it was a remnant from the Australian fires.''
The fog lifted about 8am today, he said.
MetService forecasted Philippa Murdoch said the fog started coming in at Westport Airport about 9pm yesterday, with mist from 8pm.
The fog stayed through most of the night and started to break up about 5am, she said.
Murdoch said it was ''very unlikely'' the Australian fires contributed to the weather.