WELLINGTON - The pilot of a light aircraft was praised for his quick thinking Wednesday after all 13 people on a skydiving flight leapt to safety moments before the plane plunged into a lake.
On board with the pilot were six parachutists and six thrill-seeking holidaymakers heading for a tandem skydive over Lake Taupo in the centre of New Zealand's North Island.
Despite jumping for their lives thousands of feet below the recommended level for a tandem jump, all parachutes opened and they descended safely - some into the water and others on land.
"A skydiving plane encountered an engine problem shortly after take-off," Roy Clements, chief executive of Skydive Taupo which operated the plane, said in a statement.
"All parachutes including the pilot exited the plane and landed safely. There were 13 people on board." "Where the pilot is concerned I can't praise the guy enough," he later told local news service Sun Media.
"He had to deal with the worst nightmare really for a pilot, what appears to be an engine failure. As a result he's told everyone to get out of the plane, and he's followed his own advice." The engine failed at about 2,000 feet (609.60 metres) well below the recommended safe level for a tandem jump and well below the intended jump altitude of about 10,000 feet.
"It's a lot lower than we would want to be, the minimum activation for a tandem parachute is 5,000 feet," Roy said.
A witness told the New Zealand Herald he heard a bang, then the skydivers bailed out and their parachutes opened despite the low altitude.
"It sounded like an engine blowing up. It would've been no longer than 15 seconds between the bang and when the skydivers started jumping out of the plane," Rowan Eves said.
He said the pilot was the last to jump moments before the aircraft nose-dived straight into the lake.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said it was amazing no one was killed and an investigation is under way.
Just an hour before the accident, the company was reported to have invited New Zealand popstar Lorde (Ella Yelich-O'Connor), who is on holiday in Taupo, to join them for a free skydive.
It tweeted: "Ella, you've sampled our lake, now how do you fancy seeing its true beauty from 15,000ft?!"