The elite air force aerobatics team the Red Checkers has been grounded in the wake of yesterday's fatal plane crash.

Squadron Leader Nick Cree, 32, was killed when his CT-4E Airtrainer crashed in a sand dune at Santoft, west of Bulls in Manawatu, as he practised an aerobatic manoeuvre.

Royal New Zealand Air force chief Air Vice-Marshal Graeme Linttot said the Red Checkers had displays scheduled every weekend for the next few months but the team would not fly until the cause of the crash had been found.

"We have a high specialised team of accident investigators and engineers who have been on the site since the aircraft crashed and they've started piecing together the aircraft and from that we'll determine what caused the accident -- but that could take weeks," he told journalists yesterday.

AVM Lintott described Sqn Ldr Cree as a talented, experienced pilot and new father to a son.

"He loved flying and he was one of our most talented and experienced flying instructors."

Sqn Ldr Cree's death has shocked and baffled many pilots.

Since joining the Air Force in 1996 he had served in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Singapore.

One of the pilots he mentored, Gisborne 19-year-old Matthew Wilkie, said he found it hard to believe Sqn Ldr Cree of all people had died in a crash.

Mr Wilkie spent three weeks last January sharing an Airtrainer cockpit with Sqn Ldr Cree as he trained on an air force scholarship.

Sqn Ldr Cree was practising manoeuvres in the same aircraft when he crashed in sand dune country about 8am yesterday.

"He was a really good guy, good to get on with," Mr Wilkie said.

"I was really surprised anyone in the Red Checkers had a crash, because they're trained to such a high level. He would have been the best pilot I have ever flown with."

While a pilot friend based at Ohakea had told him the mood there was "pretty sad", Mr Wilkie said the fatal crash would not deter him from an air force career.

Aircraft photographer Gavin Conroy left a message of condolence on his website, which featured shots of the Red Checkers in full flight.

"My thoughts are with Nick Cree's family, the RNZAF staff who served with him, the Red Checkers and their leader," he wrote.

"Nick Cree was one of those aviators that we all aspire to be like. He was a top bloke who loved flying. This is a very difficult time for so many people and I still find it difficult to take it all in."

Sqn Ldr Cree was a flight commander at the Central Flying School Ohakea and an A category instructor.

He instructed students on helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, but did most of his flying on helicopters.

The air force has been flying Airtrainers since 1976, when the first New Zealand-built aircraft entered service as a basic trainer. It replaced the original aircraft in 1998 and 1999 with 13 leased aircraft.

The 7.1 metre long aircraft had a 300hp engine giving it a cruise speed 278km/h and a maximum speed of 386km/h. It could fly at altitudes of up to 5.5km, with a maximum range of 1000km.

The Central Flying School has had formation aerobatic teams since the end of World War 2.

The name Red Checkers was first used in 1967 and the aerobatic team used Harvard aircraft until 1973.

Prime Minister John Key expressed his sympathy for Sqn Ldr Cree's family, friends and colleagues.

The events served to remind New Zealanders that defence force members, both here and overseas, regularly put their lives at risk, Mr Key said.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff also expressed his sorrow.

- NZPA