A hot air balloon has burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand, killing all 11 people on board in the country's worst air accident in more than three decades.

Police said the balloon appeared to have caught fire before crashing on Saturday into farmland near Carterton, about 80 km northeast of the capital Wellington, on the country's North Island.

"Sadly the pilot and 10 passengers on-board have not survived," Mike Rusbatch, Wellington district commander superintendent, said.

Jo Hunkin, a reporter for TVNZ, told Al Jazeera that the passengers were made up of five couples, with speculation over whether or not they were actually a group of friends all out together.

"Originally it was assumed it was several tourists who typically go hot-air ballooning in that area, so it has been quite a surprise to the local community to find out that everyone on board that flight comes from the neighbouring area," she said.

Regarding the pilot, she said that he had a reputation for being one of the best pilots in the area.

"He was the safety officer for a ballooning festival ... prior to becoming a ballooning pilot, he was a helicopter pilot, and spent many years working on various aircrafts, and the last 15 years operating hot air balloons," she said.

"This is a great shock for the ballooning community,"

The accident occurred in calm, clear and warm weather in a region well known for hot air ballooning.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were flames licking up the side of the basket, right up the guy-ropes," David McKinlay, who was walking his dog when he saw the balloon catch fire, told state-run Television New Zealand.

When the flames reached the canopy, the balloon plunged to the ground, he said.

"There was a big, long pencil-like flame maybe 20 metres long, heading towards the ground at a terrible speed," McKinlay added.

The accident is New Zealand's worst air disaster since an Antarctic sight-seeing flight crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board.

Source: Reuters