A helicopter pilot whose quick thinking led to the dramatic rescue of a tandem skydive instructor from an icy lake is "gutted" that only one of the victims could be pulled from the water.

Central Otago helicopter pilot James Ford was spraying over Cecil Peak Station near Queenstown when a distress call came over his radio about the plunge into Lake Wakatipu.

It set off a chain of events involving two of his colleagues on land that resulted in the water rescue on Wednesday afternoon.

Philip Rive. Photo / Peter McIntosh
Philip Rive. Photo / Peter McIntosh

Speaking to the Herald at his home near Wanaka last night, Ford was humble about his role.

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"I happened to be in the area, heard the call that the parachutists needed some help ... so just responded and did what we could do.

"I think anyone would have done the same thing had they been in the same spot I was."

Asked how he felt given one man was still missing, Ford said he was "gutted".

"Not really sure to tell you the truth. We only found one of them."

The drama unfolded about 1.40pm on Tuesday when a commercial Nzone tandem skydive went tragically wrong over Queenstown.

James Ford. Photo / Mark Coote
James Ford. Photo / Mark Coote

The instructor and his passenger hit Lake Wakatipu after getting into difficulty, sparking a frantic search by boats and aircraft.

The instructor's passenger, a tourist in his 20s, is missing presumed drowned. It emerged yesterday that he and the instructor were the last of nine pairs to jump from the Nzone plane.

On hearing of the accident, Ford called Cecil Peak Station manager Philip Rive, who along with his wife sprung into action to help the stricken skydivers and rescue the instructor.

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"It's just a case of everything falling into place — bloomin' lucky to be honest," station manager Philip Rive told the Herald yesterday.

"It was a team effort."

James Ford at the control of his helicopter during the Lake Wakatipu search. Photo / James Allen
James Ford at the control of his helicopter during the Lake Wakatipu search. Photo / James Allen

Rive, who was working on his Central Otago station bordering Lake Wakatipu, got a lift from Ford down to his boat where Rive's wife Kate was getting their boat ready. Rive said he and his wife quickly sped to the location where a skydive plane was circling near Jack's Point and found the tandem master in the water.

"Kate manoeuvred the boat right beside him and we pulled him on board," Rive told the Herald.

Lying the man down on the engine cover, they continued to search the area for the missing man with the assistance of the helicopter pilot overhead.

"I don't know how long we were looking, but the Queenstown Water Taxi came over and we immediately offloaded the fella we had on board," Rive said.

He said the tandem master was quiet and distressed after being pulled from the lake.

Rive said while he was pleased their efforts had helped save the instructor's life, he felt sympathy for the family of the missing tourist.

Police divers are now considering using sonar equipment to find the missing man, who disappeared in water about 250m deep.

Nzone director Anthony Ritter said the company would undertake its own internal review of the incident and all the staff had been offered counselling.

Ritter extended the company's deepest sympathies to the man's family and friends.

"We're all devastated with yesterday's events."

A GoPro camera strapped to the instructor's wrist was salvaged and given to police.

The instructor, who had done more than 3000 tandem jumps, suffered bruising but was in "remarkably good spirits", Ritter said. He met him yesterday before the man went to a yoga session.

Ritter said the fatality was the first death in 27 years of operation.

However, 12 months ago another incident near Queenstown ended in a crash-landing with an instructor and trainee instructor both suffering serious injuries.

Nzone staff were working with police and consular officials to try to contact the man's next of kin.