Search and rescuers hunting for a light aircraft that vanished off the coast of Blackpool with one person on board last night found fuel and debris in the Irish Sea.
The discovery was made eight hours into a major search and rescue mission.
The alarm was raised when the plane, which had one person on board, vanished off radar screens yesterday morning.
The search was called off at 5pm last night and was expected to resume at first light today.
Scores of rescuers from as far away as mid-Wales and Southport joined the operation, which was due to resume today.
The single engine propeller plane, believed to be flown by a businessman, was due to land at Blackpool Airport after completing a 40 minute flight from Ronaldsway Airport on the Isle of Man shortly at 9am yesterday.
At first, we didn’t know exactly what had happened, or whether it was a broken radio, but we took it very seriously.
It is believed the man is an experienced pilot who makes the journey regularly.
Senior coastal operations officer for the UK Coastguard, Adam Bradbury, said it was too early to say whether the debris was linked to the aircraft’s disappearance.
He said: “All I can say is there have been some objects recovered but we don’t know where they are from yet. It’s too early.”
Blackpool air traffic controllers raised the alarm after losing contact with the Manx-based aircraft. It then disappeared from their radar screens.
Conditions over the Irish Sea yesterday morning were described as “difficult”.
Rain, mist, overcast skies and water spray all contributed to poor conditions and visibility.
An emergency operation was launched, with seven boats manned by RNLI volunteers from Blackpool, St Annes, Fleetwood, and Southport scouring a three-mile area of water aided by two search and rescue helicopters from the Coastguard, including one from Caernarfon in North Wales.
A team of police and fire officers combed the mist-shrouded sand dunes at the edge of the airport for any signs of the missing craft.The crews from Bispham and St Annes searched land near Starr Gate before it was confirmed the aircraft had ditched in the sea.
The UK Coastguard’s duty controller Matthew Mace said: “There were reports of low visibility in the area so there is a strong likelihood this aircraft may have ditched into the sea after contact was lost and it disappeared from the radar.”
Lancashire Fire and Rescue service spokesman John Taylor said crews searched alongside the Fylde coastline, ‘in case the aircraft had come down on land but they found no trace’.
Mr Taylor said: “We got a call to say a light aircraft coming from the Isle of Man into Blackpool with one person on board did not make it there.”
Paramedics from the North West Ambulance Service were placed on standby as police officers searched the sand dunes.
A Lancashire Police spokesman said: “We were all stood down after finding nothing and it became a coastguard incident.
“At first, we didn’t know exactly what had happened, or whether it was a broken radio, but we took it very seriously.”
Ronaldsway Airport director Ann Reynolds confirmed the plane was based there but said it was not registered at the airport.
Details of the type of plane involved in the incident was not immediately available.
In February 2007, two Fylde men were killed when their light aircraft crashed into the sea off Blackpool during heavy fog.
Andrew Walker, 26, and Roy Hellawell, 81, died after their four-seater single-engine Piper Cherokee came down after overshooting an airport runway during an attempt at landing, and getting into difficulties as it circled to try again.