A Pacific Aerospace Corporation 750XL, the first passenger-carrying aircraft designed and built in New Zealand, has crashed at sea while being delivered to its American buyer. Early reports said the plane may have experienced mechanical problems.
The pilot, Kelvin Stark, 58, of Tauranga, died in the controlled crash, which was observed by an airborne US Coast Guard crew that had guided him through the emergency landing.
Mr Stark was delivering the aircraft, one of the first sold by Hamilton-based Pacific Aerospace Corporation (PAC), to Utility Aircraft Corporation, a Woodland, California-based company that converts planes for skydiving and acts as PAC's distributor in the Americas.
According to wire reports, the crash took place about 310 miles (496 km) from land at Monterey, California, when Mr Stark was forced to attempt an emergency water landing because he had run out of fuel.
The attempt took place during daylight, at around 9 am local time, and appeared to go smoothly, according to Coast Guard Lt Geoff Borree, who was part of the rescue team that observed the crash and had been waiting to drop Mr Stark a raft.
His landing "wasn't violent at all," Lt Borree said. "He obviously had some good piloting skills."
But Mr Stark did not emerge and the Coast Guard then called in parajumpers, an Air Force plane and a nearby commercial vessel to assist in a deep sea rescue. The jumpers arrived about three hours later and found Mr Stark in the submerged cockpit of his overturned plane, according to the Associated Press, citing Veronica Bandrowsky, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
Rough seas made it impossible to immediately retrieve Mr Stark from the plane and Lt Boree said it was not clear whether Mr Stark had been knocked unconscious on impact or become trapped in the plane after the landing, which had caused the aircraft to flip onto its top.
Mr Stark's brother-in-law, Mike Fletcher, told the New Zealand Herald that the plane was either low on fuel or developed a fuel-transfer problem involving one of the fuel tanks inside the plane.
The plane should have been carrying enough fuel for 17 hours of flight but Mr Stark reported he was low on fuel after only 11 hours in the air. According to the AP, he had only 45 minutes of fuel left when the Coast Guard team caught up with him at 10,000 feet.
Ray Ferrell, one of Utility Aircraft's owners, told the AP that the loss of the aircraft was disheartening, "but it's no comparison to the loss of Kelvin. He was talented man."
In August, the first plane off the 750XL's Hamilton production line was purchased by Taupo's Great Lake Skydive Center.
PAC says it has firm orders or sales for 18 of the PAC750XL aircraft, which was specially designed for the rapidly growing skydiving market and can carry 17 passengers, but which can also function in a variety of other contexts.
It said before the crash that it had received options for another 260 of the new aircraft.
The company says that in addition to being the first aircraft designed and built in New Zealand, it is also the first new aircraft built in the last 25 years specifically to target the burgeoning adventure parachuting market.
The aircraft can take 17 fully kitted skydivers to 3600 metres in 12 minutes and can cruise at 160 knots for up to five hours with a full passenger load.
In October, Mr Stark flew a prototype of the plane to the United States for testing by the FAA.
That flight took four days and the plane was fitted out with additional fuel tanks for the trip.
The company says the flight took refueling stops at Pago Pago, American Samoa, (a 10.5 hour flight from Hamilton), Christmas Island, part of the Kiribati Group (9.5hr from Pago Pago), Hilo, Hawaii (after 7.5 hrs flying from Christmas Island) and finally reaching Davis Airfield (California) after a mammoth 16 hr flight. Total flight time was 43.5hrs, over four days.
The plane crashed while duplicating the last leg of that run, between Hawaii and Davis Airfield.
The plane is not yet certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, which will join with the National Transportation Safety Board in the investigation into the crash.
The plane and Mr Stark's body are in water judged too deep for recovery.
The doomed single-engine turbo-prop, priced at $US994,000 ($1.7 million NZD), was the third off the PAC production line, according to The San Franscisco Chronicle.