One of the occupants of the plane that crashed carrying the footballer Emiliano Sala has been spotted by air investigators who have been carrying out underwater searches.
The UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) said it was considering its next steps in consultation with the families of Sala and the pilot, David Ibbotson, and the police.
In a statement, the AAIB said: “Having identified a priority search area last week, the AAIB agreed on a search strategy with Blue Water Recoveries Ltd [the private company working with the family] to maximize the chance of locating the aircraft wreckage.
“The AAIB commissioned specialist vessel Geo Ocean III, and Blue Water Recoveries Ltd commissioned FPV Morven and the search area was divided between the vessels. Both vessels began their search on the morning of Sunday 3 February.
“Early in the search, the Morven identified an object of interest on the seabed using its side-scan sonar equipment. It cleared the immediate area for the Geo Ocean III to use its underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the area of the seabed in which the object was located. Based on analysis of ROV video footage, the AAIB investigators onboard the vessel concluded that the object is wreckage from the missing Piper Malibu aircraft, registration N264DB.
“The ROV carried out a further search of the area overnight but did not identify any additional pieces of wreckage.
“Tragically, in video footage from the ROV, 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.”
The wreckage of the plane was surprisingly intact when it was found and it is possible that Sala’s body, and that of the missing pilot, are among the debris, according to the shipwreck specialist who made the discovery.
David Mearns, the captain of the search boat hired by Sala’s Argentinian family, confirmed he found the wreckage in the English Channel north of Guernsey using sonar equipment on Sunday morning, hours after the search began.
He said the family was “desperately” hoping for the plane to be recovered, a move Mearns said was being considered by the AAIB.
Sala’s father has spoken of his anguish at the discovery. “I cannot believe it. This is a dream. A bad dream. I am desperate,” Horacio Sala told the local broadcaster Crónica TV.
Mearns, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “The biggest surprise to us was that most of the plane is there. We were expecting to find a debris field. It is broken but most of it is there.”
He said a remote-controlled submarine deployed by the AAIB visually identified the wreckage, including the plane’s registration number.
“We located the wreckage of the plane on the seabed at a depth of about 63 meters very shortly after we started searching,” Mearns said. “After that, we called in the larger vessel, the GEO Ocean III – that’s the one that’s been contracted by the AAIB. They dove with their remotely operated vehicle, a submersible with cameras and lights and confirmed that it was the plane. They saw the registration number.”
He added that the Geo Ocean III had been contracted for only two more days and it was unlikely to be able to recover the plane in that time. “That is probably what they are evaluating,” Mearns said. “If they can handle the conditions … then hopefully they will get some more information about how they would attempt that recovery.”
Asked if the bodies of Sala and Ibbotson were onboard, Mearns said: “That’s a possibility and they’ll be planning for that. There’s a number of things the AAIB have to consider, but their main role is to conduct their investigation on what caused this crash.”
Sala’s family wanted the plane to be brought to the surface, Mearns said. “I was in touch with the family of Emiliano Sala last night, by text and through Emiliano’s agent, and the family would desperately like the plane to be recovered.”
He added: “Now they feel it is the responsibility of the government to take the next step. That was clear in my meetings with the AAIB when we were coordinating our steps.”
The plane, a Piper Malibu with the registration N264DB, had been taking Sala to Cardiff from Nantes in France on 21 January, shortly after the 28-year-old signed for the Premiership club Cardiff City.
Ibbotson, the 59-year-old pilot, had requested to descend before losing contact with Jersey air traffic control.
The privately funded search operation on behalf of the Sala family was made possible after a campaign raised more than £260,000 to pay for it.
An official search operation was called off on 24 January after Guernsey’s harbourmaster, Capt David Barker, said the chances of survival following such a long period were “extremely remote”.
Two seat cushions, which are likely to have come from the plane, were found last week.