One of two light aircraft which collided over Manawatu yesterday, killing both their pilots, had a close call with a rescue helicopter minutes earlier.
The two young male flyers, both mid-term students of Massey University's School of Aviation, were found dead in their cockpits after their single-engine Piper Cherokee training craft crashed into paddocks near Shannon, southwest of Palmerston North, about 10am.
The men killed were Brandon James Gedge, 20, from Tauranga, and Dae Jin Hwang, 27, from West Auckland.
Farmers who watched the tragedy unfold said the aircraft had been flying overhead for up to 15 minutes, conducting stalling manoeuvres before the wing of one of the Cherokees clipped the tail of the other.
Rodney Hudson, into whose dairy farm the planes plummeted off Ngui Rd north of Shannon, said he saw the southbound rescue helicopter climb and turn to avoid a collision with one of the aircraft several minutes before the crash.
The two training planes were flying "reasonably close together for a period of time".
The pilot of a topdressing aircraft also in the area described on television seeing the wreckage on the ground and then looking up to see debris floating to the ground like "confetti" out of a clear blue sky.
A spokesman for the Palmerston North-based Square Trust rescue helicopter confirmed to the Herald last night that it was forced to take evasive action after a northbound Cherokee turned into its path.
What ensued minutes later was New Zealand's first fatal mid-air collision since the police Eagle helicopter and a fixed-wing traffic-spotting aircraft collided over Auckland's central motorway junction in 1993, killing four people.
It is not the first time tragedy has struck the Massey aviation school, which lost a student in an air crash in the Ureweras during a navigational exercise in 1995.
Wreckage of his aircraft, which was supposed to have been flying between Gisborne and Palmerston North, was not found for several years.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Bill Sommer, whose agency is investigating the latest accident, said it was "obviously a high-impact crash - it was not a little nudge".
The aircraft appeared from their transponders to have collided at right angles, one while climbing on a northbound path and the other descending to the east.
He said it was possible that the pilots, both bachelor of aviation students with more than 100 flying hours under their belts, might not have seen what was in store for them.
"It's like when you are driving, you are not looking sideways," he said.
He also confirmed that the aviation authority had received a report that the rescue helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft passed "quite close" to each other soon before the crash.
The rescue trust spokesman said the light plane made a left turn, putting it on "a conflicting path" with the helicopter, which was on a medical flight from Palmerston North to Wellington. The helicopter was forced to turn right and climb away.
It then doubled back to the area after being notified of the crash, but the pilot and a nurse on board found both students dead in their aircraft, one of which crashed upside-down into a farm drain and the other into a paddock about 200m away.
The fuselages were largely intact, but other parts were sprawled across about 500m of farmland.
Mr Sommer said it appeared the planes collided 1500ft or so above sea level, which was "not unnaturally low", but Mr Hudson said he had flying experience and they seemed to him to be no higher than 1000ft.
The 15-year-old Massey aviation school has about 460 students, all based in Palmerston North, having discontinued operations in Auckland a year ago.
General manager Captain Ashok Poduval, a veteran airline pilot and former operations and safety director for the International Air Transport Association, said he was confident of the abilities of the dead pair and their readiness for the exercises set for them yesterday.
Captain Poduval, who was appointed last year to head the school and expressed sorrow over the crash, said the pair were good students and there had been no reports of their behaving abnormally.