Friends and family have paid tribute to Olympian Geoff Smale after an air force Iroquois found the wreckage of his microlight plane.

Missing since Saturday, Mr Smale, 86, a prominent North Shore businessman, had been en route to visit relatives in Ashburton.

His Dynaero microlight was found on Mt Duppa in the Bryant Range about 20km northeast of Nelson around 2pm yesterday.

A paramedic was winched down to the wreckage and found Mr Smale's body, which had been thrown clear.

Rescuers said it was not clear if a ballistic parachute that would have guided the plane to landing had been used, although the Herald understands the microlight was largely intact.

Yesterday Mr Smale's wife of 55 years, Shirley, said her husband had lived a wonderful life and she hoped his end had come quickly.

Fellow Olympian Ralph Roberts sailed with Mr Smale at the Mexico Games in 1968, racing in the Flying Dutchman class. He was devastated by the loss of his "best mate".

The pair were the first New Zealanders to win a notable European sailing competition when they took the Prince of Wales Cup in 1958 and had a special bond built on 50 years of friendship. "My wife doesn't like it," he joked. "I'll tell you why, it's because we used to talk in half-sentences.

"We can talk about something and Geoff would click in and my wife would be saying 'will you please finish what you're talking about'.

"The camaraderie we had I will cherish."

In 1968 the pair finished eighth - a disappointment when they had been running second in the world, before Mr Smale unluckily had a dose of "Montezuma's revenge", or diarrhoea.

"That upset him quite a lot because up to that stage we were second in the world," Mr Roberts said. "He lost a stone and a half in about one day. But he never complained. He was a complete gentleman."

In the early days of their racing partnership Mr Smale worked out designs of their sails at his family's Takapuna quarry, designing in the sand and then blowing wind past to see how it would affect the shape.

Mr Roberts said his friend, whose family owns Smales Farm, took up flying only a few years ago at 82.

But his feel for the way wind moved after decades of being on the water meant he became proficient quickly, once flying from Auckland to Whitianga to pick up two of Mr Roberts' visiting American friends to show them the Coromandel from above.

"He was always generous like that," Mr Roberts said.

His thoughts were with Mrs Smale, whom he called "one of the lovely ladies of this world".

Another Olympic sailing buddy, Graham Mander, 79, said his friend nursed an ambition to fly his Dynaero to Australia.

"That's what he told me - fair dinkum. He was a wonderful guy with a tonne of enthusiasm and drive."

Yesterday's search was focused on a 1300sq km area in dense bush and rugged terrain between Nelson and Blenheim. Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand spokesman Ramon Davis said radar tracking indicated that Mr Smale had flown in the area around Mt 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."

The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating.