MERSEYSIDE'S flying community last night paid tribute to a couple killed when their light aircraft crashed into Liverpool Bay.
Martin and Nora Gardner, both 56 , from Haydock, St Helens, were on a pleasure trip.
Mr Gardner had been a qualified pilot for 12 years and was an active member of Cheshire Air Training School based at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
It was the first time he had flown with his wife for more than a year and it is believed the couple were flying between Southport and North Wales when problems developed.
Close friend Martin Turner, who is the co-director of the school, said: "It's more than just condolences - we have lost two people we have been friends with for a very long time.
"We are very upset that two people who we know very well have died and we are extremely saddened for their families.
"Mr Gardner was good humoured and always gelled with everybody. He was extremely likeable.
"He used to get involved a lot on our away days when we would fly to Ireland or France."
Mr Gardner, who was an operations manager for a transport company in Carlisle, Cumbria, started taking flying lessons in 1990 and had built up 250 hours.
Mr Turner added: "He flew on what we considered a regular basis and within the requirements. He was a very able pilot and I would regard him as a safe pilot."
Air accident investigators yesterday interviewed staff at the school and analysed flight records and transcripts between Mr Gardner and air traffic controllers at Liverpool Airport.
The single-engined plane disappeared off radar screens after Mr Gardner made a Mayday call at around 12.40pm on Sunday.
A massive rescue operation was launched involving lifeboats from Hoylake and New Brighton, and helicopters from RAF Valley in North Wales and Merseyside Police.
Salvage crews are expected to retrieve the aircraft, which is in between eight and nine metres of water, at low tide this evening.
Mr and Mrs Gardner are not thought to have any family in the North West but relatives in London were yesterday informed of their deaths.