Sussex Shipwreck hunter finds missing plane of Cardiff City star in under two hours

David Mearns with his new book 'The Shipwreck Hunter' SUS-170921-125334001
David Mearns with his new book 'The Shipwreck Hunter' SUS-170921-125334001

The Sussex based shipwreck hunter David Mearns found the missing plane carrying Cardiff City footballing star Emiliano Sala less than two hours after he began the underwater search on the seabed off Guernsey on Sunday.

Back in his Midhurst office on Tuesday after the high profile operation, the director of the Rumbolds Hill based Blue Water Recoveries said he had not been surprised to find the plane so quickly.

“The information we had from the radar trace was very good quality,” he told the Observer, “this wasn’t searching hundreds of square nautical miles.

“I knew from the beginning this was a plane that could be found and the information we had turned out to be excellent.

“I said to my wife before I left that I thought we could do it in about two hours.”

And renowned marine scientist David was on the deck of the FPV Morven directing operations when the discovery was made 63 metres down on the seabed.

“We saw things using sonor that to us indicated it was a plane and we called in the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) who sent a submersible with cameras underwater to confirm it.”

He said the surprising thing was that most of the plane was there: “The bulk of it is on the seabed and very few things are missing - it is crashed and broken but most of it is there - it is not in hundreds of pieces.”

The discovery came 13 days after the plane, piloted by David Ibbotson went missing over the English Channel on its way from Nantes in France. It was carrying Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala to Cardiff where he was due to start playing for his new club in the Premier League.

David led the private search after £260,000 was raised online to allow Sala’s family to fund it.

He has now handed over the investigation to the AAIB who will make the decision on the next steps.

In a statement issued on Monday the AAIB said: “Tragically, in video footage from the ROV (underwater remotely operated vehicle), one occupant is visible amidst the wreckage. The AAIB is now considering the next steps, in consultation with the families of the pilot and passenger, and the police.

“The image shows the rear left side of the fuselage including part of the aircraft registration.

“We intend to publish an interim report within one month of the accident occurring.”

‘My job is done but I am here for the family’

David Mearns stepped in to lead the crowdfunded private search after the official hunt for the footballer’s plane was called off three days after its disappearance.

“I saw Emiliano’s sister Romina in an interview after her brother’s disappearance and went to the Argentinian consulate and said I thought I could help,” he told the Observer.

“I felt very badly for Romina and I just happen to be a person with the technical skills to help.”

He said having located the wreck of the plane 63 metres down on the seabed in the English Channel on Sunday he had completed his task.

“My job is done but I am still in daily contact with the family through their agent.

“We also have a private Whatsapp group and we are all talking all the time.

“I shall still do what I can to the last minute that the family need me.”

He said he would continue to offer them technical advice but it was now in the hands of the AAIB, which is carrying out its investigation into the crash of the light aircraft. It was also its decision as to whether the plane would be brought to the surface.

He said the Sala family desperately wanted the plane to be recovered.

“They feel that is the pathway for them to get the answers that they need to have.”

David has found more than 20 major wrecks over the last 30 years and has been involved in many high profile underwater investigations.

Although dubbed the shipwreck hunter, his latest search for the light aircraft in the English Channel was a different kind of project for him in recent years.

“While it wasn’t a ship we were looking for this time, I did start my career searching for aircraft and this was the same type of problem to solve.”

But speaking of the Sala family he was helping he said: “Here, there were people going through a very painful experience – so it’s been immediate and fresh which has heightened the sensitivity many times over.

“That is why I agreed to do this search. I felt very badly for the family and I wanted to help them.”

Read more about David Mearns’ work here:

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