Microlight pleasure flight turns to tragedy

JOELLE DALLY AND DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 01/02/2013
CRASH SCENE: Police at the scene of a microlight crash near Westport today.

CRASH SCENE: Police at the scene of a microlight crash near Westport.

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It seemed like the perfect night for flying - a gorgeous West Coast evening after a scorching hot day.

About 6pm on Wednesday experienced microlight pilot Roger Smith, 58, and workmate Cole Ashby, 25, took off from Westport Airport.

They simply wanted to spend a few hours soaring above the beach. But, tragically, neither would make it home.

The plane crashed west of Carters Beach, less than two kilometres from the airport.

Both men were killed.

A member of the public discovered the wreckage at the high-tide mark about 9.30am yesterday just as a search started.

Police said one body was found near the wreckage, the other still inside.

There was no Mayday call.

Due back about 8pm, it appears the pair were still flying when a dense sea fog rolled in about 9pm.

Residents said they heard the plane overhead between 9.10pm and 9.30pm. One reported hearing two loud bangs but was unsure if they were related to the crash.

Smith's friend and former Westland Microlight Club president Evan Grooby said something had to have gone "catastrophically wrong" to catch the seasoned pilot out.

A long-time club member, Smith had flown microlights for at least 20 years and did not scrimp on machine maintenance, he said.

If the engine had failed, landing on the beach was a reasonably safe option.

"By the feeling of it, something's happened very quickly, or whatever happened is something he thought was not so major. But that's purely speculation."

Grooby said the crash had "opened a few wounds" for the tight-knit club, which was still mourning the death of member Darrell Williams in a microlight crash in March 2009.

"It's a tragic day. You couldn't get a nicer fellow. Our hearts go out to the families."

Police said family reported the men missing about 7.45am yesterday.

Sergeant Steve Baddock, of Westport, said the tide appeared to have already come in and gone out when the wreckage was found.

High tide was at 2am yesterday and low tide was at 8.08am.

A Larsen St resident said she went down to the beach after a friend told her the tragic news.

"I could see the microlight just sticking out of the water. It was all broken up.

"It was really sad seeing the hearse come out."

She said Smith, the microlight owner, frequently flew along the beach.

"It must have been the fog," she said. "We heard it flying around and didn't think anything of it."

The plane was removed from the beach about 12.15pm yesterday.

Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said two investigators will examine the aircraft today, do a crash scene investigation and interview witnesses.

"If there are any safety concerns with the aircraft which might have contributed to the crash, we want to pass that on to the aviation community as soon as possible," he said.

Both victims worked at Stockton Mine - Ashby as a mobile plant operator and Smith as a shotfirer. Smith was also a union representative.

Smith and his wife, Marilyn, who worked at the Westport Early Learning Centre, have three grown-up daughters who live locally. They have their own children.

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Buller mayor Pat McManus said news of the crash quickly spread through Westport, and residents were in "disbelief" over the deaths.

McManus said the fog was unusual for this time of year, especially after a hot day.

Additional reporting by Caroline King and Anna Turner.

- The Press

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