Microlight families face wait for answers

LOST: Cole Ashby, 25,
LOST: Cole Ashby, 25,

The grieving families of two West Coast men killed in a microlight crash on Wednesday night expect to wait a year or more to learn the cause.

Experienced microlight pilot Roger Smith, 58, and work colleague Cole Ashby, 25, both of Westport, died when Smith's aircraft crashed into Carters Beach amid thick sea fog.

Smith's family spokesman, son-in-law Craig Soster, said today that the devastated family were unsure what had gone wrong and expected it would take the Civil Aviation Authority a year or more to complete its report.

LOVED: Roger Smith, 58.
LOVED: Roger Smith, 58.

Smith, who worked at the Stockton coalmine as a shot firer for contractor Kaipara, was friends with Ashby, who also worked at the opencast mine near Westport, and invited him on an evening flight.

The weather was clear when he took off from Westport Airport, near the beach, about 8pm on Wednesday after sea fog had cleared.

''It wasn't foggy when they went out. It was coming and going throughout the day, but it was a beautiful night,'' Soster said.

Some residents living near the beach saw the plane that night and several said they heard it between 9.10pm and 9.30pm after thick sea fog rolled in.

Smith, who had owned many microlights over the past 20 years, did not fly at night, so the family believed the crash would have happened around the last time the plane was heard, Soster said.

''Roger wouldn't have flown that late."

The pair sometimes went hunting straight after flying, so Smith's wife, Marilyn, was not concerned that he had not returned home by the time she went to sleep, ''especially with Cole going with him''.

However, when she woke yesterday morning she realised his truck was not back, so she drove to the airport and saw it there, and immediately notified police they were missing.

Smith, one of a large close-knit West Coast family, had three daughters and six grandchildren.

He spent his final day with many family members at the local swimming pool, and babysat Soster's children later in the day.

''It was a precious day. He was an unbelievable grandfather and husband and father,'' Soster said.

"He lived for his grandchildren and his daughters, and his whole life revolved around them. He always put other people before him and put himself last.

''He had a cheeky side to him and liked to play practical jokes. He lived his life to the full."

He said the big family were drawing strength from each other as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy.

They met Ashby's family today, he said.

Ashby's father, Peter Ashby, said today that friends and family began searching for the aircraft early yesterday after they found out it was missing, fearing the worst.

''When a microlight doesn't come back, it's not good."

Two of them found the wreckage on the beach and phoned him with the bad news.

As he raced down the beach, he found Smith's body about a kilometre from the crash site.

Ashby's body was found underneath the wreckage.

Peter Ashby said he expected to get autopsy results today, which could show whether the pair crashed into the sea or on to sand below the high-tide mark.

The family believed it would take a long time before CAA inspectors could indicate what caused the crash.

Ashby had an older brother, Wade, 26, who works in Auckland.

They were a close family and felt ''just as any other family would'' in such circumstances, his father said.

His son had lived a full-on life, enjoying outdoor activities, including wakeboarding, skiing, flying, scuba diving and yachting.

''If he had any opportunity to do anything, he'd go. He'd never say no. He's just come back from Fiji and did a skydive while there,'' he said.

''We all knew it's a price you pay. We don't sit at home on the couch and watch TV.''

Ashby's funeral will be held tomorrow in Westport.

CAA spokesman Mike Richards said two investigators arrived in Westport yesterday and were busy today in a lock-up area examining the wreckage, which they would continue over the next few days.

They were looking for any equipment failure, which could benefit the aviation industry's safety, rather than looking to attribute blame, he said.

Witness statements would also be gathered to piece together what happened.

Richards said it would be some months, at least, before the cause would be clear and would take longer.

''It depends on the level of forensics they need. If it's an obvious cause, it can be concluded more quickly.''

The Press