Two men killed when a helicopter crashed on the West Coast were on their way home after having the machine serviced in Wanaka.
The Civil Aviation Authority will start an investigation today into the crash that killed pilot Neale William Gray, 54, of Hokitika, and passenger Daryl Robert John Condon, 51, of Bruce Bay.
Spokesman Mike Richards said documents and records relating to the service Gray's Hughes 300 helicopter underwent on Friday would be considered as part of the investigation, as well as the "shocking" weather at the time.
Senior Sergeant Steve Aitken said the pair were reported missing about 9pm on Friday, but the search was halted about midnight. The helicopter was spotted submerged in the Fish River, near the Gates of Haast, when the search resumed in the morning. Searchers found the men's bodies still inside once they reached the remote site about 1pm.
It was understood the pair had flown to Wanaka for regular maintenance work on the helicopter and were on their way home to the West Coast when the crash happened.
Richards said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash, but he acknowledged the weather conditions were shocking. "We understand the pilot had advised some friends that he might set down rather than fly home because of the weather. When he didn't call, that's when the alarm set in," Richards said.
"They had a contingency plan for the weather, but after that no-one knows what happened, that's what we've got to find out."
It appeared the helicopter had descended through the tree canopy before crashing into the river close to the road, but in a particularly difficult spot to get access to.
The men's bodies and the helicopter wreckage had to be recovered by the local search and rescue team's Squirrel helicopter - a highly manoeuvrable and versatile type of craft used by emergency services worldwide.
Police divers were also needed to secure a winch from the Squirrel to the submerged helicopter. The CAA decided to move the wreckage to a secure hangar in Wanaka to allow a close inspection of the mechanical and electrical aspects of the aircraft, Richards said.
"The conditions were not suitable for an on-site inspection due to the steep embankment and rapidly deteriorating weather conditions."
Photographs were also taken at the crash site and would form part of the CAA investigation, which was due to begin when two investigators arrived in Wanaka this morning.
Richards said the CAA extended its sincere condolences to the families and friends of Condon and Gray.
Friend Bevan Climo said the pair were helicopter enthusiasts and both owned their Hughes 300 machines.
The "born and bred Coasters" were both well-known and popular in the region. Gray ran a mechanics workshop in Hokitika and had been flying for several years, while Condon had recently qualified as a pilot.
"It doesn't make sense because [Gray] was a very careful pilot. I'm still getting over the shock," Climo said.
- The Press
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