Seat cushions thought to be from the plane that went missing with Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala on board have been found on a beach in northern France, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has confirmed.
Guernsey Police on Thursday ceased looking for Sala, who was aboard a Piper Malibu aircraft with pilot David Ibbotson when the plane went missing over the English Channel en route to Cardiff from Nantes on January 21.
Sala completed a transfer to Cardiff the weekend before and had been back in France bidding farewell to his colleagues at Nantes.
Initial search and rescue efforts had spanned three days without finding any trace of the plane, before the authorities opted to call a halt to their scanning of the area.
But, a week on from the incident, the AAIB were alerted to two seat cushions found on a beach near the town of Surtainville, and they are now preparing to comb an area of the seabed in an attempt to find wreckage.
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“On the morning of Monday 28 January, we were advised by the Bureau d’Enquetes and d’Analyses (BEA), the French safety investigation authority, that part of a seat cushion had been found on a beach near Surtainville on the Cotentin Peninsula,” the AAIB announced in a statement on Wednesday.
“A second cushion was found in the same area later that day. From a preliminary examination we have concluded that it is likely that the cushions are from the missing aircraft.
“From the moment we were notified of the missing aircraft, we have been looking at the feasibility of conducting an underwater seabed search for aircraft wreckage. Based on a detailed assessment of the flight path and last known radar position, we have now identified a priority search area of approximately four square nautical miles.
“Through the Ministry of Defence’s Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) Project Team, we have commissioned a specialist survey vessel to carry out an underwater survey of the seabed to try to locate and identify possible aircraft wreckage.
“Due to the weather and sea conditions, we currently expect our underwater seabed search to start at the end of this weekend and to take up to three days. Side-scan sonar equipment will be used to try to locate the wreckage on the seabed. If the wreckage is found, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will be used to visually examine the wreckage.
“We are aware that a privately operated search is also being conducted in the area, and we are liaising closely with those involved to maximise the chance of locating any wreckage and ensure a safe search operation.
“Our remit is to undertake safety investigations to establish the cause of accidents. We do not apportion blame or liability.”