The body of a former Olympic sailor and prominent businessman missing for two days has been found in the wreckage of a plane near Nelson.

Geoff Smale, 86, was flying solo from Auckland to Ashburton on Saturday, but was reported missing after failing to reach his destination by 5pm.

An Airforce Iroquois helicopter found the wreckage of his microlight on Mount Duppa in the Bryant Range 20km north east of Nelson at about 2pm.

A paramedic was winched down to the wreckage and confirmed the body of Mr Smale was inside.

Spokesman for the Smale family Daniel Henderson said they were devastated at Mr Smale's death.

Family had gathered around his wife Shirley to support her as she was officially informed by police, he said.

"The news has just come through. Everyone is just getting to grips with it. All the family are around at the family home. They're with Shirley."
Mr Henderson said family had held out hope Mr Smale would be found alive through the two day search.

"It's one of those things, you're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."

Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator Ramon Davis said the wreckage was found at one of the key focus points of the search efforts.

Radar tracking had indicated Mr Smale had flown in the area around Mount Duppa before the signal was lost.

"While the weather was good overall on Saturday, there was cloud and rain in the area around the Bryant Range at the time Mr Smale was flying there.

"We pass on our deepest sympathies to his family and friends."

Two helicopters and rescue workers had spent today searching about 1300 square kilometres over the Bryant Range and Wairau Valley between Nelson and Blenheim for Mr Smale.

Mr Davis thanked members of the public and aviation experts who had provided information to RCCNZ and Airways Corporation for their assistance with radar tracking.

Daniel Henderson, family spokesman and general manager of Smales Farm, earlier thanked the search and rescue team for their efforts.

"The family is confident that everything that can be done is being done."

Mr Smale's wife, Shirley, yesterday said Mr Smale learned to fly at the age of 82 and was en route to visit relatives in Ashburton.

It was a trip he had completed a number of times in the Dynaero microlight he bought two years ago.

Mr Smale loved flying but Mrs Smale said she never accompanied him on trips because of her dislike of planes.

Family and friends were with her throughout the day.

Harvey Lockie, a microlight enthusiast and friend whose son Bryn sold Mr Smale the Dynaero, said Mr Smale - after decades of sailing and understanding how wind moved off sails - took to flying like a duck to water.

"He's a man I really admire for what he's done. There's plenty of 86-year-olds driving the mobility scooter down to the shops but not too many flying," said Mr Lockie.

"Geoff is a very determined sort of guy. He gets up in the morning and makes damn sure he's going to make use of everyday."

The Herald understands that in Ashburton, Mr Smale planned to visit retired Air NZ pilot Mike Leefe, who introduced him to light aircraft on flights around North Cape, the West Coast, Milford Sound and the Southern Lakes. Mr Leefe is the father-in-law of Mr Smale's son.