A plane that went missing off the coast of Blackpool may have crashed after its pilot — who was not qualified to fly using only his instruments — stalled at a dangerously low height, investigators ruled.
Ian Stirling’s Rockwell Commander light aircraft, now buried in sand at the bottom of the Irish Sea close to the Blackpool coastline, vanished shortly before it was due to land in the resort in December.
The Gazette can reveal the plane was later found by the Ministry of Defence, and a salvage operation launched, but the 73-year-old’s body remains unrecovered.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) yesterday released its report into the crash, which happened during stormy winter weather, and said: “The aircraft was operating in weather conditions that would have been challenging for the pilot, who held no instrument flying qualification.
“The available evidence suggests the aircraft may have stalled at a height from which recovery was not possible.”
A major search and rescue mission was launched after Mr Stirling’s single-engine plane lost contact with air traffic control around three miles off the coast, shortly after 9am on December 3.
Some 45 square nautical miles of water were scoured by lifeboats and helicopters amid fears the pilot had crashed into the water on route from the Isle of Man.
An oil or fuel slick was spotted close to where the plane went missing and debris – including a bag containing flight information – washed ashore hours later.
Air crash investigators were called in but the search was called off because of severe weather.
Full details of what they uncovered were finally revealed in yesterday’s report.
The investigators found:
Mr Stirling, a wealthy businessman, held a private pilot’s licence and had racked up more than 200 flying hours, but was not qualified for instrument-flying — often done when visibility is poor.
The 73-year-old asked an air traffic controller at Blackpool whether he would be able to land during the bad weather, and said: “Of course it’s up to me. I can always divert back.”
A bank of low cloud was moving out to sea and radar showed the plane, after flying into the cloud, lost speed and height until it disappeared.
An audible stall warning could be heard during a brief radio transmission.
Mr Stirling’s Rockwell Commander was later found upside down on the seabed, intact but full of sand. The landing gear was down.
Efforts to recover the plane failed, and it was not possible to access the cabin, where Mr Stirling’s body may remain. Some parts, including the engine, were successfully raised.
The engine was running when the plane hit the water, at a steep angle.
A technical fault, or external influence such as a bird-strike, ‘cannot be entirely discounted’.
One of the rescue helicopter pilots commented it ‘was not a day to be out over the sea at low level… there was a significant opportunity for the pilot to have been disorientated’.
The report added: “The lowest recorded ground speed was below the range of stall speeds for the aircraft, and it is possible the aircraft stalled at a low height from which recovery was not possible.
“The brief transmission, during which a stall warning may have been sounding, and the steep impact altitude found by the engineering investigation, are consistent with this hypothesis.”
In a statement released via Lancashire Police, Mr Stirling’s family said in December: “Ian was an experienced pilot who had flown this route many times. We are obviously in shock at what has happened and hoping against hope that he may be found alive.
“We’d like to thank everyone for their love and support at this difficult time and we would ask to be left alone to come to terms with what has happened.”
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Thursday, December 3, 2015:
8.36am: Pilot Ian Stirling, 73, takes off from Ronaldsway aerodrome on the Isle of Man on a private flight to Blackpool.
8.51am: Mr Stirling makes contact with air traffic controller at Blackpool, who tells him of the poor weather conditions. Mr Stirling asks: “Can I land in this?” He says returning to Ronaldsway is an option.
8.58am: Mr Stirling’s Rockwell Commander light aircraft is tracked by radar through a helicopter traffic zone, around oil and gas rigs in Morecambe Bay. He was flying at 800ft and 115 knots.
9.02am: Mr Stirling tells the air traffic controller he is “approximately 10 miles” away from Blackpool, and is told to report back when he can see the runway.
9.04am: Mr Stirling asks again about the weather.
9.05am: Mr Stirling reports he is around 4.5 miles away. His groundspeed was less than 60 knots, and he was flying at 300 feet.
9.07am: Mr Stirling makes his last contact with air traffic control, and says he still can’t see the runway at Blackpool. His groundspeed is 48 knots.
Visibility was around 1,400m, in heavy rain, with broken cloud 300ft above the aerodrome, it was estimated.
9.08am: Two brief sounds — thought to come from the plane — were recorded. In the background of the first, a high-pitched tone similar to an audible stall warning is heard.
9.10am: The controller asks Mr Stirling to report his range from Blackpool. No reply is received despite several attempts, and a huge search and rescue mission is launched.
9.15am: Emergency services begin to scour sand dunes close to Squires Gate. Mr Stirling’s plane does not arrive as scheduled.
Several lifeboats and helicopters are scrambled to scour 45 square nautical miles.
A fuel or light oil slick is seen close to the plane’s last known position, while several small pieces of wreckage are also found.
Friday, December 4, 2015:
A shoulder bag containing various items, including an instrument flying text book and paperwork, is found.
Saturday and Sunday, December 5 and 6, 2015:
More items wash up over the weekend, including wheel chocks and what was likely an interior light cover.
Monday, December 7, 2015:
The Coastguard calls off its search for the missing plane and pilot amid a prolonged period of very severe weather.
Monday, December 14, 2015:
The Ministry of Defence identifies an object on the sea bed in around 10m of water. The weather deteriorates again before any recovery effort can be made.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016:
A police maritime search finds the object to be an aircraft. Poor visibility below the waves prevented a positive identification or examination, but the location, description and colour scheme suggests it is Mr Stirling’s aircraft.
Thursday, January 28, 2016:
A light aircraft nose-wheel with tyre was washed up and handed to Lytham Coastguard.
Thursday, February 25, 2016:
A privately-funded salvage operation is attempted but is not successful because the plane is full of compacted sand and firmly lodged in the sea bed upside down. The engine, propeller, and part of the left wing are recovered and inspected by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which had launched a probe into the crash.
Thursday, July 14, 2016:
The AAIB releases its report into the crash. Evidence suggests the plane “may have stalled at a height from which recovery was not possible.” A technical fault or failure, or some sort of external influence, such as a bird striking the engine, is not ‘entirely discounted’.
Lancashire Police confirm Mr Stirling’s body has still not been recovered.