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The owner of a rare Spitfire set to star in the Wings Over Wairarapa airshow escaped uninjured after crash-landing his machine in Masterton yesterday.

The World War II Spitfire Mk IX two-seater, recently imported from Florida after a lengthy rebuild, went down just after 3pm yesterday as owner Doug Brooker prepared to touch down after a flight from Auckland to take part in the biennial airshow that is expected to attract more than 15,000 people this weekend.

Mr Brooker, who climbed uninjured from the plane after his machine came to a halt at the northern end of Hood Aerodrome runway, declined to comment on the incident.

Wings Over Wairarapa airshow director Tom Williams said the crash was the result of an "undercarriage malfunction on landing".

The plane was to have been the main attraction at the event - its debut at a New Zealand airshow - but Mr Williams said the machine could be replaced by a number of other unique aircraft featuring at the show.

The downed plane is painted in the desert marking of the aircraft flown by Colin Gray, who became New Zealand's highest scoring fighter pilot of the war.

The Spitfire was to also fly in a unique mock dogfight with a P51 Mustang over Wellington at 1pm today, with 91-year-old Battle of Britain veteran John Pattison on board.

Mac McCarthy, a plane enthusiast who lives at Hood Aerodrome, was outside on his deck when the plane crashed.

"It's right in front of my house. I didn't see it but I actually heard it. I was talking to someone and we heard an almighty bang and there it was."

He also lamented the destruction of the plane. "It's a Spitfire, man, and there's not many of them flying, eh. It's a crying shame, it's a beautiful aircraft."

Another eyewitness said the plane "didn't look right" as it came in to land.

Masterton fire safety officer Henry Stechman said firefighters had cordoned off the crash site and ensured leaking fuel was safe from explosion.

The crash had been referred to the Civil Aviation Authority.