A much-loved rescue helicopter pilot who had flown countless search and rescue operations has been named as one of the victims of today's light plane crash in Northland.
The flying community is mourning Dean Voelkerling, operations manager at the Northland Emergency Services Trust and a Northland Rescue Helicopter pilot.
He and another man were killed instantly when the light aeroplane plunged into farmland south of Dargaville at about 12.20pm.
Farm workers who witnessed the tragedy saw pieces of ''debris'' fall from the north-bound plane seconds before it plummeted into a dairy paddock at Tatarariki, 4km south of Te Kopuru.
Farm owner Terry Brenstrum, who was not on-site at the time, said his staff told him they saw pieces fly off the blue and green plane about a kilometre south of where it ploughed into the paddock alongside the Northern Wairoa River.
While police have not formally identified the pilot and passenger, Voelkerling and another man were seen heading out in the plane from Whangarei Airport around lunchtime today, according to Whangarei Flying Club captain Rusty Russell.
Russell, 68, said Voelkerling had belonged to the club for around three years. He was extremely popular and a highly knowledgeable, experienced pilot.
He and his wife had built the kitset Vans RV7 aircraft themselves, doing much of the work at the NEST hangar four doors down from the club.
The plane would have been rigorously inspected including by the Civil Aviation Authority before ever getting airborne, Russell said. "It's a very serious step to release an aircraft."
Russell described Voelkerling as a "passionate aviator" and a charismatic club member who liked nothing better than to spend time talking flying stories or helping other members with aviation problems.
"Every waking minute he was thinking about flying, talking about it, doing it.
"He was a mentor to a lot of fliers - they all looked up to him because of his status in the aviation industry and he was very forthcoming with his knowledge.
"He was just a very likeable guy, very easygoing. He never said a bad word about anybody - he took people as they came."
Voelkerling was extremely safety conscious and wasn't one to take risks, Russell said.
"He was meticulous in his maintenance. He never took a shortcut - his attitude to doing things correctly was impeccable."
If there was a problem with his plane, Voelkerling would throw money at it, and replace parts rather than try and fix old ones, Russell said. "He would never scrimp and save like some people. He did everything right."
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A club member had seen Voelkerling and another man heading out in the distinctive plane around lunchtime, Russell said.
"They exchanged a few pleasantries and off they went." It was not known who the other man was or where they were headed.
"I think like all of us - we fly because of the freedom. You make up your mind when you get up there. There's no traffic jams, no stoplights - you go where the wind takes you."
The news of the accident spread quickly through the club, he said.
"The phone starts ringing pretty quick. Everybody thinks it's me, calls to say are you alright."
Members felt "absolutely sick" at the news, he said, "because of all the people that you hope it isn't, Dean would be at the top of the list."
"The word tragedy is often used but it's the best word. It's tragic on so many levels. He was a young father, had a lovely Mrs. He's going to leave a big hole in the north."
The police Serious Crash Unit, five fire crews and one ambulance attended the crash. A St John spokeswoman said the Auckland Westpac Rescue helicopter was also dispatched.
Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe said the bodies were to be removed tonight and would be taken to Auckland for a post mortem and official identification before their names were released.
The Civil Aviation Authority will arrive on Tuesday to start their own investigation, with the wreckage to be removed after their inspection is complete.