As experienced pilot Gerry Gould tried to land his stricken light plane, its canopy sprang open dangerously and strong winds whipped his face and swirled papers around the cockpit.
Fellow Mid West Aero Club member Rick Pederick was driving into Geraldton's airport and saw Mr Gould was in peril.
"The canopy was fully open but not in the normal way. It was open so it was creating a lot of drag," he said. "It would have been difficult to see because you're facing into 150km/h winds."
Mr Pederick raced towards the runway to help the 60-year-old but the two-seater Lancair Legacy hit a fence and exploded.
"There was so much fire I thought he had no chance of surviving but someone else was on the other side and could see him moving," Mr Pederick said.
Several other people rushed to help, all desperately using fire extinguishers to douse the flames.
Local businessman and pilot Bill Van Ast said the intense heat and fire made it too difficult to reach Mr Gould immediately.
Then construction worker Pat Bourke raced over with a water truck and rescuers sprayed the badly injured pilot while dousing the flames.
Mr Van Ast said Mr Gould was conscious but not speaking as rescuers tore wreckage away to reach him and pull him free.
He was flown to Royal Perth Hospital with severe burns and was in a critical condition last night with wife Patsy and other family by his bedside.
Rescuers and friends said their thoughts were with Mr Gould.
Shane Van Styn said: "If anyone was going to pull through, he's the guy. He's a tough chap."
Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators will look for why Mr Gould had problems with the canopy, a combined windscreen and cockpit roof, soon after take-off.
Senior investigator Andrew Roberton said Mr Gould was returning to the airport when he crashed. Mr Pederick said a canopy popping open was not necessarily life-threatening.
"Sometimes you can latch it in the air and sometimes you have to land and pull it closed because the air pressure is too much," he said.
For some reason Mr Gould's canopy opened fully, creating a major problem. Mid West fire and emergency services want a permanent fire emergency response team at Geraldton airport.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said a licensed aerodrome needed a permanent fire response team when it had more than 350,000 passengers a year.The City of Greater Geraldton said the airport had about 135,000 passenger movements a year and that an airport-based team was up to the Federal Government.