The search has resumed this morning for a well-known member of the Wanaka aviation community, missing after a helicopter crash yesterday.

The helicopter that crashed into Lake Wanaka belonged to Matt Wallis, son of Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis.

The helicopter was part of the Alpine Helicopters fleet, owned by the Wallis family. A spokesperson said this morning the family would be making a statement today.

Matt Wallis, son of Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis, is missing after his helicopter went down yesterday.
Matt Wallis, son of Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis, is missing after his helicopter went down yesterday.

Queenstown Lakes District Council deputy mayor Calum MacLeod said they were still searching for a missing person at this stage.

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"There's always hope but we do fear for the worst."

MacLeod described the Wallis family as a big Totara tree in a small forest.

"Any impact on that family, impacts the community and there's a sense of hushed conversations they are a well-respected family and he's a wonderful man. It will be a tragic loss."

He said the police dive squad was due in Queenstown this morning and the habour master had closed off Stevensons Arm for the search.

"The Coastguard are performing a transport route from and around the lake and the Wallis family will be a huge part of that."

MacLeod said weather conditions were relatively clear and still at the moment, but there was a southerly front anticipated just after lunchtime.

"Which will make things a bit grim but not too bad this morning."

Police took over the search this morning, after first being co-ordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand.

Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw said the search had started up again this morning, comprising Police, LandSAR and Coastguard boats, and was centred around Stevensons Island.

He said the Police National Dive Squad would make an assessment of the situation this afternoon, adding that the cold but calm weather this morning offered a good opportunity for search teams to operate.

Shaw said the aircraft had left Wanaka Airport about 1pm yesterday, and had been headed towards Mount Aspiring National Park when it went missing, a journey that had been expected to take 15 minutes.

Shaw said there had only been one person on board – the male pilot. He said police were not currently in a position to confirm the name of the pilot.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult has been told the missing man is Matt Wallis and said the community is devastated.

"The whole Wallis family is well known in the community. They are liked and respected.

"Everybody there will be enormously sorry about this."

Boult said he knew Sir Tim very well and his heart went out to him and the rest of the Wallis family.

"It's very hard to put words around these things, but it's just a horrible thing to occur."

The search that begun around 1.30pm on Saturday was suspended overnight before resuming this morning.

Chopper wreckage was discovered on an island in Lake Wanaka after the rescue centre was alerted to a Robinson helicopter carrying one person which had disappeared from its tracking system.

Tim Wallis, left, founder of Warbirds over Wanaka pictured at the Classic Flyers museum in 2007. His son is believed to be missing at Lake Wanaka. Photo / File
Tim Wallis, left, founder of Warbirds over Wanaka pictured at the Classic Flyers museum in 2007. His son is believed to be missing at Lake Wanaka. Photo / File

Three helicopters from the same company retraced the flight path of the missing chopper and spotted wreckage on the shoreline of nearby Stevensons Island, as well as an oil slick in the water 1km north.

Rescue Coordination Centre NZ senior search and rescue officer Chris Henshaw said it was confirmed the wreckage was that of an R44 Robinson helicopter.

The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, police and Coastguard are all involved in the search, but the mission has had to be suspended until the morning.

"Another team will land on Stevensons Island where wreckage was seen to establish if further information can be gleaned," Henshaw said on Saturday.

The search at Lake Wanaka was halted overnight and resumed at first light. Photo / James Allan
The search at Lake Wanaka was halted overnight and resumed at first light. Photo / James Allan

Six helicopters have been involved in the search, including the three choppers from the company owning the missing craft.

A police spokeswoman said then that it had received reports of a downed helicopter, but said Maritime New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre was leading the operation.

Metservice meteorologist Ravi Kandula said yesterday had been a "cloudy, gloomy day with reduced visibility" since about midday in Wanaka.

There had been occasional steady rain, and cloud had dropped to about 1000-1200 feet.

While there had been some gusts late morning, the wind had not been "spectacular" for most of the day.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) had opened an inquiry into the suspected crash.

The chief investigator of accidents, Captain Tim Burfoot, said the Commission appointed a team of two investigators, who were due to arrive at the accident site tomorrow.

The Commission opens an inquiry when it believes the circumstances of an accident or incident have - or are likely to have - significant implications for transport safety, or when the inquiry may allow the commission to make findings or recommendations to improve transport safety.


TAIC put Robinson helicopters on its watch list - the highest alert it can give - in 2016.

Citing 14 mast-bump accidents costing 18 lives since 1991, the Commission called for renewed testing of Robinson helicopters, among other recommendations aimed at promoting safe handling of the machines.

The Department of Conservation suspended use of Robinson helicopters in November 2016 because of safety concerns and has now made the move permanent following external and internal reports. The estimated additional annual cost of using other types of helicopters to Robinsons is $350,000.

Robinson helicopters make up 35 per cent of the New Zealand fleet but 49 per cent of accidents, 64 per cent of fatal crashes and all seven fatal mast-bump accidents.

In 2008, West Coast pilot Morgan Saxton died after his Robinson R22 helicopter plunged into Lake Wanaka. A Transport Accident Investigation Commission report found the 31-year-old was texting just minutes before the crash.

The report found mast bump, contact between the rotor head and the rotor mast occurred - likely caused by turbulence - before the helicopter hit the water. Matt Wallis was part of the team that recovered Saxton's body from the lake.

In 2014, Jerome Box, 52, a construction company director from Auckland was killed when a Squirrel AS350B2 helicopter he was travelling in with three friends crashed on Mount Alta, Wanaka. The helicopter rolled 700 metres down the slope before coming to a stop.

Last month, a man was taken in a critical condition and later died following a helicopter crash near Waiouru. The Hughes MD600N helicopter was undertaking a commercial survey operation in the area before crashing near the Oturua Stream.

The Civil Aviation Authority reported there were 12 helicopter accidents last year, which was similar to the total for 2016. Three happened on agricultural operations, five on other commercial, two on private operations and one each on training and transport.

The authority said the overall fatal accident rate, at 2.5 per 100,000 hours, has been reducing since 2014 but is still "a way off the low" of 2009-10.

Lake Wanaka is New Zealand's fourth largest lake, at 192sq km and an estimated 300m deep.

The lake is used for adventure tourism all year round.

The flying career of the missing man's father, Sir Tim Wallis, ended in 1996 after a near-fatal crash in one of his Spitfire fighters at Wanaka Airport.