'I heard this bang and that was it'
A witness watched helplessly as a tiny plane carrying a British-trained pilot and his instructor spluttered in midair then nosedived into a Hastings riverbed, killing both men.
The pair were in radio contact with colleagues only minutes before their two-seater Tomahawk plunged into the Ngaruroro River that weaves beneath a low-flying training area near the settlement of Maraekakaho yesterday.
Emergency services were called to the scene at 11.24am but found the men, who had not been named last night, dead in the plane owned by the Bridge Pa aero club.
Matapiro resident Alison Arthur was outdoors feeding horses and watched horrified as the tragedy unfolded.
"It was a little tiny plane and it made a strange noise and it rolled a little bit too, I think, about a 45-degree angle in the water's direction as it was going up, then it nosedived.
"I heard this bang and that was it. It was all gone."
The noise of the impact was so loud it spooked the horses and one bolted, jumping a fence, she said.
Hawke's Bay and East Coast Aero Club president Bruce Govenlock said that, as soon as the aerodrome received an emergency alert from the downed plane's locator beacon, club members flew to find it about three nautical miles from Bridge Pa.
Pilot Jeremy Bruce, in the Lowe Corporation rescue helicopter, also spotted the plane's wreckage, and described its tail sticking up out of about a metre of water in a channel of braided river.
But it was the dead instructor's fellow club member who made the initial discovery, Mr Govenlock said.
"Aviation is a tight community. Everyone in the aerodrome will know him, and to have one of your own colleagues suffer today and then find out about it in the manner they found out - it's going to be tough. The club has suffered a pretty terrible tragedy."
The British pilot being instructed was an experienced commercial flier from Britain, who had the prospect of a job in New Zealand and had been due to sit an exam today, which would have let him fly here, Mr Govenlock said.
All applicants for a New Zealand commercial pilot's licence with valid overseas qualifications must complete a flight test with a flight examiner. They must also clear a medical certificate and pass a written exam.
The Piper PA-38 Tomahawk was a "robust" model widely used for training, and the crashed plane was about 30 years old, Mr Govenlock said.
The Civil Aviation Authority will investigate the cause of the crash.
Yesterday's accident follows the death of Donald Carlton Kain, 53, in a helicopter crash near Gisborne on Thursday, which left the pilot in hospital.
Mr Bruce said he knew the pilot, and it was heartbreaking to see the Tomahawk wreck so soon afterwards. "I guess it hits home that it's a risky business."
Recent small plane crashes:
December 2012: Rotorua man Samuel Kershaw, 26, dies when his topdressing plane crashes in the Waikite Valley, south of Rotorua.
April 2012: George Mitchell, 74, of Whangaparaoa, and Brian Martin Whiteman, 73, of Waiuku, die when their microlight two-seater crashes at South Head, north of Auckland.
January 2012: Palmerston North doctor Ralph Saxe, 51, and his Gold Coast-based friend Brett Ireland, 50, die when Dr Saxe's Yak-52 aerobatics plane crashes into Timona Park in Feilding.
October 2011: Tauranga's Ian Sloan, 59, dies when his Cessna 172 crashes at Monk's Airstrip by Arrowtown Golf Course.
March 2011: Geoffrey Logan, 44, dies when his G Pereira GP-4 crashes into the sea near Orewa Beach, north of Auckland.
July 2010: Flight Training Manawatu chief flying instructor Jessica Neeson, 27, and her student pilot, Patricia Smallman, 64, of Waikanae, die in a mid-air Cessna collision over Taonui Aerodrome near Feilding.
The Dominion Post