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A pilot who walked away from a 100km/h crash with only a cut cheek said she didn't have time to get frightened.

Sarah Collinson, 24, was flying a Cessna 172 that ploughed nose-first into a bank on Whangarei airport's perimeter road on Friday morning.

"I was aiming for the runway and about 60m before I got there the engine stopped," she said last night.

"I was still going pretty fast, I didn't really have time to think about anything."

The plane was extensively damaged.

Collinson said the impact was "pretty hard", estimating the speed at impact as 90-100km/h.

The near-death experience has not put her off flying. The lack of a plane is the only thing stopping her getting back in the cockpit.

Lucy Harrison was in her camper van in Beach St, near the crash site, when she realised the incoming Cessna sounded wrong.

"We heard it and then we saw it. It was low and slow and making a whistling noise.

"We saw the right wing dip as it got close to the runway, then it was out of sight, and we heard the crash."

She and her husband grabbed a fire extinguisher and first-aid box from their van and rushed up the hill to the plane.

They arrived at the same time as another witness, who had been chopping firewood at his mother's house when he noticed the plane "more or less gliding in" and making the whistling noise. "I thought, 'there's no way that plane is going to make it'," he said.

Minutes before the crash, Collinson, who worked for skydiving company Ballistic Blondes, had dropped four customers over the airfield.

The company's safety officer Davy Hogg said Collinson handled the emergency well but was "very lucky".

One of the skydivers said he had no idea about the crash until he was back on the ground and the plane seemed to operate normally during their flight.

Airport manager Mike Chubb, of Northland Aviation, said in 20 years he had never known of a plane to land short of the runway. He said Collinson had done well.

"She only had two choices - try to land or head for the water and ditch it in the harbour."

Ballistic Blondes had been leasing the Cessna while one of its aircraft was undergoing maintenance.

The company it was leased from was responsible for the plane's maintenance during the lease, Hogg said.