Two experienced pilots are in a serious but stable condition with burns after surviving a crash at Orange Regional Airport.
Pilot Ben Wheeler, 47, of Orange and instructor Catherine Fitzsimons, 55, of Bathurst were undertaking an “instructional night flight” when the plane crashed onto grass and burst into flame near a runway about 6.30pm on Tuesday.
Police said Mr Wheeler was thrown free of the wreckage of his four-seater, single-engine Cirrus SR22 plane on impact but returned to help free Ms Fitzsimons.
A Toll Rescue Helicopter crew working nearby rushed to their aid.
They were later flown to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
Both pilots were listed as being in a critical condition on Wednesday morning.
That was later downgraded to a non-life threatening “serious but stable” condition.
A spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said three investigators arrived at the airport on Wednesday afternoon to begin examining the cause of the aircraft crash.
“The initial priority for the investigators will be to assess the safety of the accident site, given the aircraft was made from composite materials and has been burnt,” he said.
“The aircraft was also fitted with a ballistic parachute recovery system.
“The Transport Safety investigators will be at the airport for the next few days conducting an investigation.”
The spokesman said they would examine the wreckage and interview witnesses before preparing their report.
Colleagues, workmates and friends of the two pilots rallied behind them on Wednesday.
Orange pilots and Orange Aero Club members said reports Mr Wheeler was a trainee pilot were incorrect.
Wade Air owner Wade Mahlo said Mr Wheeler was respected in aviation.
“He did a lot of flying, he’s really experienced” he said.
He also praised Mr Wheeler’s actions in helping Ms Fitzsimons from the wreckage.
“He’s a hero, I think he acted extremely [bravely].”
Central West police superintendent Chris Taylor said Mr Wheeler was able to talk to ambulance crews and rescuers after the crash to give them some details about what had happened.
Acting Duty Operations Manager with NSW Ambulance Jason Speight said both victims were conscious when emergency services arrived on the scene.
Ms Fitzsimons is the chief flying instructor with WardAir Flight Training in Bathurst.
WardAir spokesman Luke Patterson said staff were in shock over the incident.
“She’s [Ms Fitzsimons] an extremely experienced pilot, she’s our chief flying instructor. She’s flown all over the world,” he said.
“Catherine is very passionate about aviation, particularly women’s aviation and very passionate about developing safe pilots.”
Mr Patterson said they were in Mr Wheeler’s late-model, privately-owned aircraft when the accident occurred during what he described as an “instructional night flight”.
“Everybody is in shock out here, we don’t know what’s happened or why it happened but we’re focusing on their health right now,” he said.
“We’re all doing OK, we’re just rallying around each other while it’s still developing.”
Ms Fitzsimons is the vice president of the Bathurst Business Chamber.
Its website describes her as an “aviation professional” with international expertise.
Her aviation experience includes previously being the NSW state president of the Australian Women Pilots Association and a former board director of the Royal Victorian Aero Club.
She joined WardAir in 2015.
NSW Fire and Rescue and Rural Fire Service crews attended the accident scene to extinguish the blaze.
An exclusion zone was set up around the crash scene overnight.
Police and Orange City Council staff ensured the scene was preserved until crash investigators arrived.
The airport has remained open to commercial and private aircraft after the crash as the wreckage was well away from the main runway.