A pilot smuggling cannabis into Britain died after crashing his dope-laden aeroplane into a field during heavy fog, an inquest was told yesterday.

Malcolm Cook, 52, a married travel agent with two children from Horsham, died instantly when the Piper Cherokee Warrior II plane crashed.

The single-engine four-seater plane hit the ground at high speed and skidded 50 metres before smashing into a hedge in Horsmonden on the Sussex-Kent border in February 2005.

Tunbridge Wells coroner's court heard that firefighters called to the crash site were shocked to find four large holdalls containing 22kg of cannabis among the wreckage.

The Class C drugs had a street value of almost £40,000.

There was also a large amount of tobacco which Cook had been smuggling into Britain.

Clifford Tyler, the manager of a fruit farm neighbouring the crash site, told the inquest how he thought the pilot was "crazy" when he heard the plane flying low through thick fog.

He said: "At the time it was extremely foggy with visibility of only 50 metres. While I was pruning trees I heard the engine of a light aircraft.

"I commented to a colleague that it was crazy to be flying in that weather - only a lunatic would be flying so low.

"At this point the engine stopped and there was a loud bang."

After jumping on his tractor, Mr Tyler found the "badly smashed up" plane in a hedge and raised the alarm.

Detective Constable Leonard Johnston, from Kent Police's organised crime unit, who investigated the drugs smuggling, told the inquest how Cook, a licensed pilot, had hired the Piper Warrior from a company based at Shoreham Airport.

He logged a flight plan on February 7, 2005, to fly along the Sussex and Kent coast to Belgium, and then to return by the same route the next day.

DC Johnston said: "A new GPS system Mr Cook had bought showed his return destination was really a field at a farm in Horsmonden, Kent."

Peter Clayton, principal inspector with the Air Accident Investigation Branch, said there were no technical defects on the plane before it crashed.

He said: "The weather was good when the pilot took off at Fent in Belgium but there was low cloud and lingering fog over South-East England.

"It appears the pilot descended at Dover and flew at a low level below the clouds to Horsmonden.

"Occasionally he climbed and descended in gaps between the fog patches to get his bearings."

Mr Clayton added: "Our investigation concluded that the pilot had taken a long international flight to an undeclared destination in poor weather conditions.

"The plane descended into the ground through poor decision making."

The inquest heard that other witnesses saw the light aircraft circling looking for the field he intended to land in.

Others saw the plane climbing and descending and said its engine only stopped at the point of impact.

West Kent Coroner Roger Hatch recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Cook's family did not attend the inquest held at Tunbridge Wells Magistrates' Court yesterday morning.