A former Olympic sailor killed when his aircraft crashed into ranges near Nelson had recently completed a mountain flying course.
Geoff Smale, 86, was flying a high-performance microlight when he went missing on Saturday. He was heading from Auckland to Ashburton, a four-hour route he had flown many times before. The alarm was raised on Saturday evening, sparking a search.
The wreckage of the microlight was spotted by the crew of an air force Iroquois helicopter at 2pm yesterday, on Mt Duppa in the Bryant Range, about 20km northeast of Nelson.
Three police officers and a paramedic were winched down to the wreckage and found Mr Smale's body. He had been thrown from the microlight on impact and was well clear of the aircraft, which had caught alight, police said.
Mike Leefe – the man Mr Smale was flying down to see – said he was amazed his friend had crashed in mountains. "His equipment would have been screaming `Terrain! Terrain! Terrain! They are very sophisticated wee machines."
A careful pilot, Mr Smale had completed a mountain flying course within the past 12 months, Mr Leefe said. "That's why I am just amazed."
Mr Smale represented New Zealand in yachting at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.
He needed to complete a medical test every two years to keep his microlight licence, because of his age.
According to the Recreational Aircraft Association, "microlights range from the most basic bugs-in-your-teeth flying machines to high-performance machines that make your average Cessna look like an underpowered brick".
The DynAero microlight was classed as a performance microlight but looked like a small plane. It had a nine-hour flying range and could cruise at 135 knots (250kmh).
Mr Leefe, a retired Air New Zealand pilot, introduced his friend to aviation about three years ago with flights to the glaciers and Stewart Island.
"You could see his eyes light up."
Mr Smale was "one of the greatest guys I have ever known", Mr Leefe said.
"He made a mockery of the idea that you slow down once you get past 80. He worked every day till a couple of years ago."
Mr Leefe had spoken to Mr Smale's widow, Shirley. "She's pretty shattered, but pleased that it would have been quick. A lingering death would have been much worse."
Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand mission co-ordinator Ramon Davis said the wreckage was found in a key search area. Radar tracking showed Mr Smale was in the area around Mt Duppa before the signal was lost.
"While the weather was good overall on Saturday, there was cloud and rain in the area around the Bryant Range at the time Mr Smale was flying there," Mr Davis said.
BIG ACHIEVER A 'DOWN TO EARTH' MAN
Auckland businessman Geoff Smale was a humble, down-to-earth person who achieved much in his life, a business associate says.
Mr Smale, 86, was the patriach of a North Shore family who own the Smales Family Technology Business Park in Takapuna. The business park's general manager, Daniel Henderson, said Mr Smale was an "incredible individual".
"He was easy to talk to, down to earth. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn't realise what he had been up to in his life." His other business interests included a service station on the North Shore and a specialist provider of frameless glass for showers and swimming pools.
He was a hard-worker who liked to keep a low profile, Mr Henderson said. He still helped sons Chris and Greg run the business park.
A keen sailor, Mr Smale put New Zealand on the sailing map when he won the Prince of Wales' Cup in 1958 at Cowes, Isle of Wight in Britain and then went on to represent New Zealand in yachting at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. He was a licensed microlight pilot and the proud owner of one of only two DynAero aircraft in New Zealand.
- © Fairfax NZ News