Helicopter pilot describes finding trampers missing after smoke came through 'thick bush'

Two trampers missing in dense South Island bush were found only after a plume of smoke from their fire slowly drifted through the forest canopy and attracted a helicopter, the pilot says.

Nearly three weeks ago, on May 8, Dion Reynolds and Jessica O'Connor ventured into the Kahurangi National Park but didn't return when expected. That prompted an extensive search and rescue operation hampered by poor weather and made difficult by the rugged terrain.

Matt Gibb, the owner of Helicharter Nelson, was among those searching for the pair on Wednesday.

"We were systematically low-level flying up and down valleys and areas of interest with myself and three observers onboard," he told Newshub.

"It was the third flight up the head of the Fraser Stream and I noticed some smoke, which we hadn't confirmed was smoke when I first saw it, but we discussed it and went over, it was worth looking at, something unusual, it might have been a bit of fog. [We] went over and with the doors off you could quickly smell smoke."

Down below was Reynolds and O'Connor. Reynolds told RNZ on Thursday how fog had disorientated the trampers, how they became injured, and what they did to survive. Previous attempts at building a fire to attract attention had been unsuccessful. 

One day, a Westpac Helicopter had flew within 50 metres of the pair.

"It just didn't spot us because it was real poor lighting. After that, that really bolstered our hopes a whole lot that there [was] actually people out there looking for us."

On Wednesday, Reynolds said the pair heard a chopper and made the smoky fire that caught Gibb's attention.

"We hovered around in the hope that we might attract some attention or let somebody know we were there and, what turned out to be Jess, came into a very small, little hole in the bush that you could see and waved up at us," Gibb said.

The helicopter pilot told Newshub it was because of the smoke that the helicopter found them.

"It was the smoke that saved them that day. It was the only thing we saw that was out of the normal. Smoke just slowly coming through the canopy of the forest and that was enough to attract our attention.

"[Without the smoke] we wouldn't have seen them in that flight, I don't believe. It was on our flight path, in our tasked area, for sure, but you couldn't see the forest floor. 

"We would have flown over it and you cannot see down through the canopy as well as you would like in these searches."

Gibb said the area was covered in "thick bush".

"You can't see the forest floor. Except when you are hovering over, there was a really big dead tree beside where the smoke was coming out, and we were hovering over that and you could see the ferns on the ground, it was really steep-looking. 

"You could actually see, just by chance, down to the forest floor and there they were.

"It was pretty amazing to see them well and standing up and hugging each other and they were really, really happy to see us. We were pretty excited to be part of that… it was amazing."

The pair were later winched up and choppered back to Nelson Airport where they were then transferred to hospital. After being released on Wednesday night, Reynolds said he spent time with family and ate pizza.

Those in charge of the efforts to find the trampers have praised the search team. 

"This is a fantastic outcome and one that we were all hoping for, although we were becoming increasingly concerned as the days progressed," Nelson Bays area commander Paul Borrell said.

"I am so very, very proud of our Search and Rescue team made up largely of volunteers and supported by police."