Wanaka pilot believed to have died in crash

The Wanaka pilot who has been missing since yesterday following a helicopter crash is presumed dead with rescue efforts now focusing on the recovery of his body.

Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw officially confirmed the identity of the missing pilot this afternoon.

The helicopter which 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.

At a press conference today Det Sgt Shaw said Wallis went missing when he was delivering supplies to a high country lodge. 

A helicopter searches over Lake Wanaka for the missing helicopter pilot. Photo: Sean Nugent
A helicopter searches over Lake Wanaka for the missing helicopter pilot. Photo: Sean Nugent

Police believe Wallis died in the crash and are currently undertaking a recovery operation to return his body to his family. 

The National Dive Squad arrived in Wanaka around 12.30pm and left shore at 1.50pm to begin their search. 

Some clothing has been found but police had yet to identify whether it was connected to Mr Wallis. No other significant wreckage had been found since yesterday. 

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

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

A jet ski helps conduct the search for the missing helicopter and pilot on Lake Wanaka. Photo: Sean Nugent
A jet ski helps conduct the search for the missing helicopter and pilot on Lake Wanaka. Photo: Sean Nugent

"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."

A search that begun around 1.30pm on Saturday was suspended overnight but has resumed again this morning.

Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw said the helicopter had left Wanaka Airport for a short 15 minute trip to Mount Aspiring National Park.

"A search centred around Stevensons Island has started up again this this morning, comprising Police, LandSAR and Coastguard boats," Det Sgt Shaw said.

Matthew Timothy Wallis. Photo: NZ police
Matthew Timothy Wallis. Photo: NZ police

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.

Three helicopters from the same company retraced the flight path of the missing chopper and spotted wreckage on the shoreline of nearby Stevenson 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 Stevenson Island where wreckage was seen to establish if further information can be gleaned," Henshaw said on Saturday.

He said there was one person aboard the helicopter when it went missing.

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

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

Metservice meteorologist Ravi Kandula said it 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.

Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has 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 are 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.

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

The estimated additional annual cost of using other types of helicopters to Robinsons is $350,000.

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

Lake Wanaka is New Zealand's fourth largest lake, at 192sqm 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.

 - reporting by Otago Daily Times and NZME.

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