Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Man who died paragliding in Queenstown was an experienced pilot

Tributes are flowing for an experienced mountain rescuer who died while paragliding from the Queenstown gondola yesterday.

Ben Letham lost control and landed on a building at Queenstown Primary School about 10.10am as vendors were setting up for the Night Noodle Market.

A person at the scene said the pilot had gone "head over heels" rather than spinning.

Chris Prudden, from Queenstown Alpine Cliff Rescue, said Letham was originally from Scotland and was a valued and loved member of the team.

He said he understood another member of the rescue team had been flying with Letham yesterday but both were on solo flights.

"Ben was a great guy and he will be very sorely missed," Prudden told the Herald on Sunday. "He was renowned for his flying expertise and he was also a very capable climber.

"Everyone here is shocked about what happened. Ben loved flying and he had a great sense of humour."

In November 2012 Letham made the news when he was freed from a tree about 60 metres above the ground when he crashed after taking off from the Queenstown gondola.

He had taken off from Bob's Peak during a private solo flight but got into trouble on his decent after a his chute got caught by a tree.

Prudden said Letham - who was in his mid-20s - had also suffered a serious spinal injury in the past but had staged a remarkable recovery to fly again.

Craig Smith from the Southern Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club said Letham had been a popular member of the organisation.

"I knew Ben as a friend and he was mischievous and funny guy," he said. "He was a very experienced pilot and just loved flying. It is so sad."

Another witness said Letham had "flipped and then got tangled".

"It was just one guy by himself, not a tandem," the man said.

"From what I heard he toppled head over heels and from what I can see he has landed on a building and then hit the ground."

Police and emergency services at the scene. Photo / James Allan
Police and emergency services at the scene. Photo / James Allan

It is understood a woman, believed to be Letham's girlfriend, arrived at the scene shortly after the crash.

"As you can imagine it was pretty awful when his girlfriend arrived," the man said.

A witness from Holland told the Otago Daily Times Letham fell for five seconds.
"It was really high," she said.

"We saw them making a loop, sort of, and then they fell in his paraglider."

Her friend said: "They dropped, with their back to the ground.

"It's so terrible."Queenstown Primary principal Fiona Cavanagh said the staff were "shocked and saddened" to hear of the death on school grounds.

She said the school had a contract that allowed paragliders to land on the bottom field at the school.

Cavanagh said there had not been any other serious accidents in the three years she had been principal.

She said the death would not affect the current agreement.

Police confirmed the death and said the Civil Aviation Authority had been notified.

- Herald on Sunday

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