Four skydivers cheated death today when they parachuted from a light plane shortly before it collided mid-air with a second plane near Masterton.
Both pilots are thought to have been killed on impact. Witnesses have described the "terrible" moment the two planes crashed with a massive bang before debris spiralled out of the sky and burst into flames on the ground.
One plane, reportedly from Skydive Wellington, was approaching Hood Aerodrome after four people had successfully dived. It collided with the second light plane, from the Wairarapa Aero Club, at 11.13am.
The planes hit the ground close to a house about 100m apart before bursting into flames. Residents immediately rushed to help but both pilots were already dead, police said at a press conference this afternoon.
Wairarapa Police area commander Inspector Scott Miller said it appeared one was a training plane, while the second had taken four parachutists for a successful jump. The planes collided 800-1000m south of the aerodrome, around 300ft off the ground.
"The impact was very severe. Both planes dropped immediately after the impact and most likely both pilots were killed, very unfortunately and tragically, at that impact."
It is understood the body of one pilot was removed from their craft tonight but the second would need to be left where it was overnight for the Civil Aviation Authority's investigation.
A no-fly zone would be in place at Hood Aerodrome until that work was complete.
Miller could not comment on how experienced either pilot was or what companies or clubs they belonged to. They had "local connections" but police were still trying to locate one of the families.
He could not confirm whether the two planes had been flying towards each other.
Carolyn Playford, who lives at a house on nearby Hughes Lane, was standing with her dad by the car when they heard a loud bang. They looked up to see debris from two planes falling to the ground on to farmland.
There was an immediate fire and black smoke, Playford said.
"[We] just heard this massive bang and then saw the debris coming out the sky and just swirling down," Carolyn said.
"The fire happened as soon as they hit the ground. It just went up. It was terrible."
Carolyn and husband Mike live at the property and Carolyn's father, Graham Pearce, was visiting at the time.
"It just fell out of the sky," Pearce said.
"There were bits and pieces everywhere."
Mike Playford said it appeared that one plane was returning to Hood Aerodrome.
"We think one was coming out of the aerodrome and one was coming back in."
He had heard a parachute opening some time before the collision.
"We heard sirens within about two minutes," Carolyn said. She said the incident had left the family shocked – "It has shaken us".
Her father said it was something they would not forget. The planes "were locked up and then they sort of fell to bits, and all the debris came down", he said.
The crash happened in fine conditions, under blue skies. The family speculated that sunstrike may have been a factor.
The Civil Aviation Authority will arrive on Monday to begin its investigation into the cause of the crash. Police were searching the area and would keep it secure overnight until the CAA arrived, Miller said.
A helicopter pilot who had been lining up to land when the crash happened saw the event unfold and would be a key witness in the investigation, Miller said.
The skydivers would probably be interviewed as witnesses although Miller understood they had jumped well before the crash happened.
Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson has been fielding calls all day from worried locals expressing their sorry at the day's events.
The aviation community at the council-owned Aerodrome was "very, very close-knit", Patterson said.
"It's a well-used airfield for a lot of recreational fliers, from gliders to homebuilders to top dressing. There's a range of aviation activity so there is a lot of interest and a lot of concern... about who was involved."
There had been some difficulty contacting one of the pilot's family members.
Patterson said crashes at Hood were very rare and she believed the last fatality had been in the 1980s.
The tragedy is the second fatal light plane crash in recent days.
James Albert Evans, 78, of Whitianga died yesterday when his light plane crashed at Coromandel Forest Park.
The aircraft was reported overdue at 4.25pm on Friday and the wreckage found yesterday.