By TONY WALL
The pilot who crashed his Cessna into the side of a hill in Central Otago yesterday, killing himself and five others, appears to have been trying to take a quick route through a mist-shrouded pass.
Wellington pilot Bill James, owner of the Cessna 206, was flying below mist and low cloud near the summit of the Lindis Pass just before midday when the plane crashed.
A 14-year-old boy survived the impact and was tended by holidaying doctors and ambulance staff who were driving past on State Highway 8 a few hundred metres from the crash site.
But the boy had suffered terrible injuries and died in a helicopter on the way to hospital.
His name and the names of the other passengers, two men and two women, were not available last night.
The others are all understood to be pilots and aviation enthusiasts from the Associated Aviation Flying School, based at Paraparaumu.
The flying school's managing director, Russell Jenkins, told the Herald that six planes from the school were flying home from Queenstown in convoy after attending the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow.
He said Mr James' Cessna was the fastest and was out in front.
Another plane flying about five or 10 minutes behind came across the crash and immediately alerted air traffic control.
Police say that at least one of the dozens of planes in the area was forced down by the bad weather.
Crash investigators will today begin piecing together what happened in the final minutes of the Cessna's flight.
Police says that it appears from witness accounts that it was flying below the mist and cloud, tracking the highway north.
The plane veered sharply to the left, but seemed to lack the speed or power needed to regain altitude.
Rescue helicopter pilot Dave Taylor said it appeared the plane was trying to turn back towards Wanaka.
"Certainly the marks on the ground looked like he was turning away from the saddle. He didn't quite make it."
The Herald yesterday spoke to an experienced Mackenzie Basin pilot who said flying through the pass in such conditions was absurd.
The pilot, who did not wish to be identified, said Mr James should have turned around and waited for the weather to clear, or taken one of the many alternative routes.
"He was pushing through low cloud, putting himself under pressure, I'd say. He obviously elected to sneak underneath it [the cloud] and close his options off by going through the actual road pass.
"It's like heading up a one-way street with traffic coming the other way at you - there's just not the room to turn."
Another pilot who was returning from the airshow about the same time, Brian McCoombe, of Christchurch, said the Lindis Pass was the most direct route north but he decided to take an alternative path.
"I wasn't going to attempt it in the conditions that prevailed when I was there, which was immediately after midday."
Mr Jenkins said Mr James had 20 years' flying experience and was a conscientious pilot.
He said the pilot of the tailing aircraft in the convoy considered the weather "not that bad" when he arrived five or 10 minutes later.
Sir Tim Wallis, the airshow founder who survived a serious crash in 1996, was shattered to hear of the tragedy, which he said had put a dampener on what had otherwise been a successful event.
He said he was familiar with the Lindis but could not comment on whether it was wise to fly through the pass in yesterday's conditions.
Friends of Mr James were yesterday remembering a "real character."
The auto electrician "always had a yarn to tell you, always had something funny to say," said colleague Ken Morris.
Mr James, a single man in his 40s, was also interested in motorcycles and speedway.
By TONY WALL