The death of three men killed in a helicopter crash in Wanaka has left the community reeling.

Nick Wallis, Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald were experienced pilots and rangers and would be a "huge loss".

Doc director general Lou Sanson paid an emotional tribute to Mr Hondelink, Mr Wallis and animal threats biodiversity ranger Scott Theobald on RNZ this morning.

"We just lost so much, these are some of the most experienced people in the world."

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"It's just a tragedy, we are just absolutely stunned, we don't know what to say."

The two Doc workers and Mr Wallis all played crucial roles in protecting New Zealand's environment and helping native birds.

"This is huge what has happened to Doc.

"Thousands of birds are alive on islands because of these people," he said.

"We lost some of the most significant experience in New Zealand, if not the world yesterday."

There is no suggestion of foul play in the helicopter crash that killed three people near Wanaka yesterday, Southern District Commander Superintendent Paul Basham said.

Investigators are this morning picking through the wreckage of yesterday's triple helicopter fatal crash at Wanaka trying to figure exactly what happened.

Nick Wallis, 38, whose brother and fellow pilot Matt Wallis died nearby in a chopper crash just three months ago, was flying a leased Hughes 500 with two Department of Conservation (DoC) elite senior rangers on board when tragedy struck.

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The two rangers were identified as Paul Hondelink, 63, and Scott Theobald, 59, both of Twizel.

They took off from Wanaka Airport in perfect conditions at 10.51am yesterday, northbound for the Landsborough Valley, in headwaters of the Haast Valley, for the first day of tahr cull operations.

But just after take-off, the aircraft crashed, 1.5km from the airport. There were no survivors.

Police will remain at the scene of the helicopter crash through today and into tomorrow, Basham said.

Nick Wallis, Alpine Helicopters pilot, died in a crash at Wanaka yesterday. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Nick Wallis, Alpine Helicopters pilot, died in a crash at Wanaka yesterday. Photo / Otago Daily Times

The police were working to go through the disaster victim identification processes and hoped to be able to remove the bodies later today, Basham said.

Basham attended a briefing at the airport earlier today led by Jonathan Wallis, and was also attended by other police and DOC staff. It gave him a real sense of the "huge" impact that tragedy is having on the families involved, DOC, the aviation and alpine communities, as well as the wider Wanaka community.

"Everybody involved in this event are really motivated and determined to get through this as quickly and as efficiently as we can," Basham said.

It was "very important" to find answers to the tragedy, and quickly, he said. Both police and Transport Accident Investidation Commission (TAIC) were highly-motivated to conduct inquiries as quickly and as efficiently as possible, especially in retrieving the human remains, so they can be returned to the grieving families.

Today he told media there was ammunition on board at the time of the crash, confirmed the helicopter was leased and said there were witnesses to the crash.

TAIC is now the lead agency, police said. Any questions relating to the helicopter or the accident were referred by Basham to TAIC.

It's understood that TAIC may hold a press conference later today to update with more details.

Scott Theobald, of Twizel, died in a helicopter crash near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo / Supplied
Scott Theobald, of Twizel, died in a helicopter crash near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo / Supplied

Chief executive of Aviation New Zealand John Nicholson said the organisation was "deeply sorry to learn yesterday of the helicopter accident at Wanaka".

The Wallis family had a long history with the development of aviation in New Zealand and were highly respected for the contribution they have made, he said.

The accident also had wider repercussions with the deaths of two Department of Conservation employees.

"This accident will hit the families and the Wanaka, aviation and Department of Conservation communities hard. Events such as this do not seem fair," Nicholson said.

"Scott McKenzie, chairman of the New Zealand Helicopter Association joins me and all our members in extending our deepest sympathies to Nick's wife and two daughters, Sir Tim and Lady Pru and the families, friends and colleagues of the three so tragically killed."

The crash scene, in a paddock near the banks of the Clutha River, was guarded overnight.

This morning, specialist crash investigators could be seen at the site, along with several police cars, tents, and officers in a base several hundred metres from the wreckage.

What appears to be the tail section is more than 100m away.

A large cordon marked by white tape surrounds the remains of the leased Hughes 500 helicopter (ZK-HOJ), that the Herald understands was brought in specially by Wallis' Alpine Helicopters company for the tahr cull contract.

TAIC has opened an inquiry and sent a four-person investigation team, which arrived last night.

Chief Investigator of Accidents, Captain Tim Burfoot, says they are in the early stages of gathering information about the aircraft, the circumstances and the people on board.

Department of Conservation ranger and rural fire officer Paul Hondelink was one of three people killed when a helicopter crashed near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo / Supplied
Department of Conservation ranger and rural fire officer Paul Hondelink was one of three people killed when a helicopter crashed near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo / Supplied

TAIC 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 it to make findings or recommendations to improve transport safety.

Nick Wallis, survived by a wife and twin 7-year-old daughters, was the director and general manager of Alpine Helicopters, and the youngest son of Sir Tim Wallis, who founded the popular Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow and who himself has survived a reported 15 air crashes.

Police said they were working with the victims' families to support them.

"We acknowledge this is the second helicopter crash in the Wanaka area in recent times and the impact this will have on the local community," Otago Lakes area commander Inspector Olaf Jensen said.

Members of the Wallis family were seen consoling each other at the airport hangar yesterday afternoon.

Alpine Group tourism general manager David Hiatt said the company has had a "strong working relationship" with DoC, starting with the Forest Service 55 years ago.

"Alpine wishes to extend its sincere condolences to the families and colleagues of the crew of the helicopter which was involved in the tragic accident near Wanaka yesterday," he said.

Three people were killed in a helicopter crash in Wanaka. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Three people were killed in a helicopter crash in Wanaka. Photo / Otago Daily Times

"The men were not simply DoC workers, they formed part of a team of elite senior rangers within the department. Importantly, they were personal friends of Alpine staff and ownership who are also grieving at this time.

"The matter remains in the hands of the New Zealand Police and Transport Accident Investigation Commission."

A former DoC worker who had flown with Nick Wallis on many occasions was shocked by the tragedy.

"It will be really interesting to find out what has happened here. I can't believe it would a pilot error as Nick was super experienced and a really talented pilot," he said.

He said Wallis ran a well-organised operation and the company was using a brand new machine that was specifically designed to be super safe.

Yesterday's crash comes less than three months after his brother and fellow pilot Matthew Timothy Wallis was killed in a helicopter crash.

The 39-year-old's body was discovered in the chopper wreckage at the bottom of Lake Wanaka, two days after the crash.

Warbirds Over Wanaka Community Trust chairman John Gilks paid tribute to Nick Wallis yesterday, saying the tragedy would have a huge impact on the Wanaka community.

"It's in the realm of being almost unbelievable.

"The community will be devastated."

Gilks, who knew Wallis well, said the pilot was a "lovely guy, a wonderful guy".

"He was a man's man and yet a real gentleman."

"The person I feel deeply sorry for is Nick's wife ... and their children."

Former New Zealand Deerstalkers Association president Bill O'Leary expressed deep regret at the "tragic loss of life".

"All our members, indeed hunters everywhere, will join in expressing their deepest sympathy to the families of those lost."

- Additional reporting Otago Daily Times