Broadcaster Rod Vaughan says a drone may have collided with the plane he was flying moments before he was forced to make a terrifying crash landing near Waihi.
His theory has been backed by the chief flying instructor at the aero club nearest where the plane came down, and one of the first on the scene.
The veteran TV reporter, who lives in Katikati, told the Bay of Plenty Times he was taking his son Richard, who was visiting from Germany, on a flight over the Western Bay yesterday afternoon.
They had set off from Thames about 2.30pm in a small plane belonging to the Hauraki Aviation Club, of which he is a member.
They were travelling over Waihi about 3.10pm when the windscreen of the plane "exploded", allowing a rush of air to enter the cockpit.
"The wind coming through was so forceful that it blew my headset into the back of the plane, so I had no communications."
The strong wind travelling through the plane also smashed the side and back windows, and the noise inside the cockpit was incredibly loud.
"The only option was to get down as soon as possible," Vaughan said.
He spotted a field south of Waihi and attempted to make an emergency landing. He estimated the plane was travelling between 80 and 90kmh when it approached the field, clipping the top of a hedge. The plane landed hard, breaking the nose wheel before tipping over soon after impact.
"It all happened in about 30 seconds," Vaughan said.
Both Vaughan and his son were still strapped to their harnesses in the upside-down aircraft.
Blood was dripping down Vaughan's face from a large gash in his head; he was unable to release himself from the harness. His son managed to help him out of the plane and emergency services were alerted to the crash.
They were both taken by ambulance to Tauranga Hospital. His son had several bad contusions, and Vaughan was treated for the large gash he had sustained during the crash landing.
Although he did not see what caused the windscreen to shatter, he suspected it might have been a drone after discounting the possibility it could have been caused by a bird strike - there were no feathers or blood - or a shot from a high-velocity rifle.
"The most probable explanation is that it was a drone," he said.
Vaughan said there had been a lot of drone activity in the area and members of the Hauraki Aero Club had expressed concern about possible collisions with aircraft.
Cheif flying instructor at the club Cliff McChesney said members had checked the aircraft and there was no sign of feathers or any other suggestion a bird had impacted with the windscreen.
"Something has hit it and that something is pretty heavy, the windscreen is 4-5mm thick and it has imploded," McChesney said.
He said there were often drones in the area the plane was, as the large open pit mine was a popular spot to photograph. "I would says there's a drone up there every day at some time."
McChesney said he had seen pieces of the plane's plexiglass windscreen, about 30cm by 30cm, which were found near the Waihi Fire Station.
Vaughan, who has worked as an investigative reporter for television news and current affairs, said as far as he was aware it would be the first time a drone had caused a plane to crash if his suspicion proved correct.
Tighter rules needed to be in place regarding the use of drones, he said.
McChesney said Vaughan was fully qualified to be flying the plane, and praised the pilot's landing.
"He did an excellent job."
McChesney said he was also concerned about the growing popularity and availability of drones, and the danger they could pose to pilots.
He said pilots were often flying as low as the permitted 500ft above Waihi Beach to give passengers the opportunity to view and photograph the scenery. Drone were often operating at 400ft, he said.
"That doesn't give pilots much room to avoid these things. Some can be pretty small and almost impossible to see from a cockpit. The drones are essentially invisible."
A CAA spokesperson confirmed they were investigating the crash, but would not discuss the possibility of a drone being involved.
"I'm aware of the speculation of the cause but we can't comment on that.
"One of our investigators is intending to talk to the pilot of the aircraft this afternoon to try and find out exactly what happened. He'll be talking to witnesses and others during this information-gathering stage.
"I can't say at this stage how long the investigation is expected to take."
The plane came down in a maize paddock on land owned by Dennis Orchard.
Orchard said he was not in Waihi when it happened but the phone call from the farm manager had "come as a bit of a shock".
Police confirmed the Foxbat light plane crashed around 3.16pm yesterday ear Ford Road, Waihi.
A spokesperson said two people sustained minor injuries, and the investigation was now being headed by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Key rules for drones
- don't fly at night
- keep drone in sight
- don't fly higher than 120 metres (400ft)
- give way to crewed aircraft
- don't fly over private property without permission
- avoid restricted airspace without permission
Source: Civil Aviation Authority