Australian Minehunter finds plane wreckage 73 m below surface

The Commanding Officer of Royal Australian Navy’s Huon class minehunter HMAS Gascoyne has praised his crew for their role in finding a plane which crashed off the coast of New South Wales, nearly two months ago.

Lieutenant Commander Alan Parton said his crew discovered the wreckage relatively quickly and despite it being in 73 meters of water and some pieces being “as small as a coat hanger”.

On 21 March, a Cessna 172, flown by off-duty Qantas pilot Paul Whyte, disappeared from radar about 11 kilometers north-east of Byron Bay.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority coordinated an extensive search but no signs of the plane were found.

A request for assistance was made to the Navy, and Gascoyne, which was about to conduct training in an adjacent area, was directed to start the search, commencing late Thursday 9 June.

“This is a good example of the ability of the ship’s sonar equipment and the dedication and professionalism of ship’s company,” Parton said.

“Some of the debris located and examined by the ship was as small as a coat hanger but we were still able to locate it.”

“A grid search was established based on the last known location, tidal stream and drift, and a search scheme generated using the rough size of the aircraft’s engine block as a possible sonar target,” Lieutenant Commander Parton said.

At midnight on Friday a strong contact had been found.

The ship’s mine disposal vehicle, a remotely operated unit used for mine disposal, revealed the plane wreckage, identifiable by its registration number.

Gascoyne sonar operator, Able Seaman Dion Harlacz, said the contact showed initially as a very faint sonar return.

“It was very exciting when the Mine Disposal Vehicle camera revealed the wreckage,” he said.

“I am glad we were able to help the police and the family.”

HMAS Gascoyne is a Huon class mine hunter fitted with a variable depth sonar capable of detection ranges in excess of 1,000 meters ahead of the ship.