LONDON — The man leading a private search of the missing plane carrying Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala said on Monday there was a “very good chance” of finding the aircraft.
David Mearns, an American-born marine scientist and shipwreck-hunting specialist, said a survey vessel equipped with state-of-the-art search equipment has been mobilized and will conduct an underwater search for the plane this weekend.
“There’s no guarantee,” Mearns said, “but (Sala’s) family is determined to do everything they possibly can through the support they have in the football community and through family and friends.”
The plane carrying Sala and pilot David Ibbotson disappeared from radar last week over the English Channel. The flight was going from the French city of Nantes to Cardiff, where Sala was set to start playing for his new club in the Premier League.
More than 300,000 euros ($340,000) have been raised online to allow Sala’s family to fund a private search, after an official rescue operation for the light aircraft was called offon Thursday after three days. Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona were among those making pleas to resume a search.
Family and friends of Sala went on a special flight on Monday to view the area over the English Channel where the plane disappeared. The “scenic flight” circled the island of Alderney, according to Aurigny, an airline that operates in the Channel Islands.
Mearns, who has said he has located 24 major shipwrecks, said the purpose of the flight was to recreate the route of the plane and “the type of pattern the search-and-rescue aircraft might have created so (the family) could have a feel exactly for the waters.”
“I want to emphasize,” said Mearns, speaking to reporters at Guernsey Airport as Sala’s mother and sister stood beside him, “that the family are determined to get answers that they don’t have right now, and the only way to do that is find this missing plane.”
The private search, which began on Saturday, initially used two fishing boats — one from Guernsey and one from the U.K. — that were in the area at the time of the last radar contact of the plane.
“In terms of something being lost in the ocean, this is a relatively small search area,” Mearns said. “But there are complications in terms of it being a small plane, the bottom is very hard, there is lots of other wreckage out there and we have the weather. We are working in the worst time (of the year).”
Mearns said he was confident there were enough funds to carry out the “search and identification of the plane.” If the plane was to be recovered, he would hand over the operation to police and other authorities.
The official search was abandoned after Guernsey harbor master Capt. David Barker said the chances of survival after such a long period were “extremely remote.”
Cardiff signed Sala from Nantes for a club-record fee, reported to be 15 million pounds ($19 million), on Jan. 19. The striker left the Welsh capital after completing the move and returned to Nantes to collect his belongings and say goodbye to teammates and staff of the French club.
Cardiff’s first game since Sala’s disappearance will be on Tuesday at Arsenal, and manager Neil Warnock said some of his players have needed “help from outside” the club to deal with the situation.
“One or two of the lads, it was only right that they speak to people who might help them in this situation,” Warnock said. “You don’t realize the trauma that it causes a lot of families, whether it’s memories brought back or different situations.”
Warnock said it had been the most difficult week of his 39-year managerial career.
“It is such a strange situation,” he said. “I don’t think we could have played a game on Saturday, but it doesn’t get that much better this morning … I don’t know how it’s going to be in the next 24 hours.”