Pilot's body found inside chopper wreckage

The body of pilot Matt Wallis has been found inside the wreckage of his helicopter, police have confirmed, after a combined effort by police, navy and the coastguard.

Matt Wallis
Matt Wallis

At a news conference in Wanaka this afternoon, Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw confirmed the Wanaka man was inside the helicopter which was pulled up from 47 metres below the surface of Lake Wanaka last night.

Det Sgt Shaw said about 30 people were involved in the recovery operation in the Stevensons Arm area of the lake.

He said a team made up of police, navy and coastguard worked together to locate the wreckage that had Mr Wallis in it.

Mr Wallis (39) was removed from the wreckage before a line was attached to lift the wreckage out of the water, he said.

"It took a number of hours due to various difficulties. The weight of the machine and the depth that it came up from.

Navy hydrographic specialists had been called at the request of police.  They used remotely operated underwater vehicles to scan the lake bed using sonar equipment.

"Divers were working at night and using remotely operated vehicles that had their own light source so it was very achievable given their expertise and the equipment we were able to source from the New Zealand Defence Force.

"Police cannot express enough how appreciative we are to the many people who assisted in the search, working long hours in cold conditions, Det  Sgt Shaw said.

"We are fortunate in New Zealand to be able to draw upon a range of professionals who are dedicated to putting people first."

The police national dive squad, using Wanaka boat Dual Image, sits at the spot above where Matt...
The police national dive squad, using Wanaka boat Dual Image, sits at the spot above where Matt Wallis' helicopter crashed in Stevensons Arm. PHOTO: SEAN NUGENT

The body was retrieved about 10pm by the police national dive squad and Royal New Zealand Navy. Some wreckage of the helicopter Mr Wallis was flying when it crashed on Saturday was also recovered.

Mr Wallis leaves a 5-year-old son, Arthur, and wife, Alice.

"This is the best possible outcome we could have hoped for in the circumstances, and we are glad to be able to bring some degree of closure to Matthew's family at this sad time,'' Det Sgt Shaw said.

"Police would like to thank the Wallis family, New Zealand Defence Force, LandSAR volunteers, the Wanaka community and the aviation industry for their assistance in this recovery operation. Matthew's family ask the media to please respect their privacy as they come to terms with their loss.''

The matter will now be referred to the Coroner.

TAIC investigation begins

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has already begun its investigation.

Air accident investigator Ian McClelland said the state of the wreckage showed the helicopter had hit the water from "some height", although noted the damage assessment had yet to be completed.

The stormy weather at the time would "certainly" be looked at as part of the inquiry, he said.

Mr McClelland said his team would continue to gather evidence, including aircraft maintenance records and pilot history, and identify witnesses. He said it was difficult to say how long the investigation might take.

Sir Tim Wallis.
Sir Tim Wallis.
The recovery effort continued throughout yesterday as Mr Wallis' "devastated'' father, Sir Tim Wallis, was understood to be headed to the crash spot on Lake Wanaka.

George Wallis said from Hawaii that his brother Sir Tim, a founder of the popular Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow, was "absolutely devastated''.

George Wallis described his nephew as "very energetic'' and said his loss would leave a "big void''.

The Wallis family owns Alpine Helicopters and Minaret Station, a remote and exclusive lodge, tourism base and working farm on the western side of Lake Wanaka.

Matt Wallis was flying alone from Wanaka in a Robinson R44 helicopter on Saturday just before 1pm on a 15-minute supply trip to a lodge in the Minaret Bay area.

In 2008, Haast helicopter pilot Morgan Saxton's body and the helicopter he had been flying were retrieved from Lake Wanaka after a crash.

The retrieval was completed in a 94m-deep underwater operation using a home-built rig from a remotely operated vehicle.

Yesterday, members of the Haast community who were involved in that operation expressed their sympathy for the Wallis family and the Wanaka community.

Kerry Eggeling, Haast's search and rescue co-ordinator at the time, said yesterday the crash had a "huge impact on the Haast community''.

Matt Wallis was heavily involved in the recovery of Mr Saxton's body, and Mr Eggeling described Mr Wallis' crash as "deja vu''.

"I just absolutely feel for the Wallis family. It's absolutely tragic to lose a brother or a son like that. Words can't describe it.

 

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