By ELEANOR BLACK and BRIDGET CARTER

The weather could not have been better when student pilot James Beggs left Gisborne Airport bound for Napier and Palmerston North.

With the ocean to his left and the Huiarau Ranges to his right, the 19-year-old from New Plymouth would have been able to see for miles.

But somewhere north of Wairoa, he mysteriously veered 45 degrees off course and, as he headed inland, the weather changed dramatically.

Thick cloud obscured landmarks and it seems that Mr Beggs, who was known for his navigational skill, may have become disoriented.

On the afternoon of May 21, 1995, his blue, black and white Piper Cherokee, ZK-MBI, crashed into the rugged ranges of the Urewera National Park, about 64km from his intended flight path.

It was hidden in dense bush until Sunday, when Aucklander Greg Heath, on a hunting trip with friends, spotted it near the top of a ravine.

Today a team of three searchers will return to the Ureweras to recover Mr Beggs' remains.

His family, now living in Australia, are understood to be relieved that he will finally be buried.

The location of the wreckage has baffled one of his former tutors at the Massey University School of Aviation, Ron Raymond.

The debris of the plane, which appears to have nosedived, is spread across 30 sq m.

Helicopter pilot Joe Faram, who went into the bush to hunt for clues as to the plane's origin, said it was so badly broken up "it took me 15 minutes to identify it. There was no way the pilot could have survived impact."

Mr Beggs, who had 100 flight hours and had just started his second year of the bachelor of aviation course, had already flown from Palmerston North to Gisborne that day, and had completed the route a week before. He left Gisborne about 3 pm and radioed the Napier tower just after 3.30 pm, giving a position which placed him on the expected flight path.

When air traffic controllers tried to contact him at 3.34 and 3.50, there was no answer.

Wairoa police sergeant Chris Flood was part of the original team that made a methodical grid-search from the air. "From all accounts, the aeroplane fell outside the possible search area," he said.

Searchers were thrown off the trail by a sighting of a similar plane heading out to sea at 3.45 pm.

They guessed that Mr Beggs had been overcome by carbon dioxide.

Mr Raymond said Mr Beggs was a well-liked, enthusiastic and conscientious student who had done many cross-country flights.

"I don't understand how he could have reported that position south of Gisborne and ended up smashing in the Ureweras."