It was January 21, 2019, and the international football world was reeling: the Piper Malibu aircraft that was flying Argentina-born star Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson had disappeared near the Channel Islands off the coast of France. Sala was a talented 28-year-old striker, his team’s last hope of avoiding relegation from the English Premier League, and public shock was succeeded by sorrow when police called off the search for his plane three days later.
David Mearns, an expedition leader of deep ocean projects, marine scientist, and football fan, was likewise smitten with angst — and curiosity.
“When I heard that the surface search for the plane had ended, I searched online for information that had already been made public about the crash. I looked at how the police radars had been tracking the plane. I looked at the water depth. I looked at all these other factors and more, and knew that the plane could be found,” Mearns says.
Mearns is a top hand in wreck hunting, globally known; he has spearheaded the discovery of countless high-profile shipwrecks and holds three Guinness World Records, including one for the deepest shipwreck ever found. His most recent pursuit, in 2016, had unearthed the crumbling wooden skeletons of Vasco da Gama’s 16th century fleet from beneath 4,000 tons of sediment and rock off the shores of Oman, recovering more than 2,800 artifacts from the pepper trade of five centuries ago. (They even managed to salvage peppercorns, an electrified Mearns recalls.)
Many of the notoriously difficult wrecks others predicted would never be found, Mearns had eventually smoked out. Now, he vowed to do the same with Sala’s missing plane. The endeavor would require all of the skills and instincts he had developed over decades of underwater searches. But unlike many of his other hunts, this one would be emotional, too.
“I looked at how the police radars had been tracking the plane. I looked at the water depth. I looked at all these other factors and more, and knew that the plane could be found.”
On the evening of January 24, Mearns contacted the Argentinian consulate in London and volunteered to help resume the track. Moments later, he got a WhatsApp message from Romina Sala, the athlete’s sister. “Puedes ayudarnos,” she wrote in Spanish: Can you help us? The answer was a no-brainer.
Providentially, a GoFundMe appeal organized by Meïssa N’Diaye, the founder of the football agency representing Sala, racked up over $375,250 in just a few hours on the afternoon of January 25. With funding in place for needed equipment, Sala’s relatives resumed the search in the English Channel early Saturday morning, entrusting the shipwreck hunter to do the job.
Mearns describes his interactions with Sala’s family as intense. These people, who had traveled from Argentina to London after the crash, were trying to make sense of what was happening to them, all while crowded in a room with 20 authority figures bearing pompous titles and expressing stilted condolences in a foreign language. Sala’s relatives believed that if anybody could make it out of a crash alive, it would be Emiliano, a driven player who had risen through the poverty of rural Argentina to global fame and prosperity. Mearns knew the situation was hopeless from the start, and was more interested in bringing them closure.
That weekend, Mearns headed to Southampton, England to hire FRP Morven, a 19-meter survey vessel crewed by seven professional surveyors. The Morven was known for its good side scan sonar equipment and magnetometer search systems. Mearns moved the ship to Guernsey, 24 nautical miles from the crash site, knowing that time was of the essence: The search could begin only if weather permitted.
Mearns had been watching the forecasts all week, and knew that sea conditions would be best on Sunday, February 3. He boarded the vessel at 2:30 a.m. that day and headed straight to the crash site. He agreed to focus on half of the four-nautical-mile “search box;” a separate vessel, hired by the United Kingdom’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), would go for the other half.
As Mearns was onsite first — and had exclusive seabed maps provided by local fishing vessels — he chose the northwestern half of the search area, where he felt the Piper Malibu was more likely to have crashed. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Soon, a hulking object with all the signs of airplane wreckage, lying at a depth of 70 meters, appeared in pixels on the side-scan sonar.
“We were sure we had found the plane, but to be absolutely certain, we made a further six passes with the sonar to produce an unmistakable image,” Mearns says. The AAIB sent down a robotic vehicle to confirm the finding. The plane was towed to the sea surface, mostly intact — only the tail was missing — but nastily torn, twisted, broken up. What completely took them aback was that a body was caught up in the wreckage.
Four days later Mearns would learn from N’Diaye that “it was Emi.” Roughly two weeks later, Mearns set up a second expedition to search again for David Ibbotson’s body, but the 59-year-old pilot’s body was never retrieved.
Being hundreds of miles out in the middle of the ocean above something thousands of meters below — “something” he must bring to shore, and quickly — has been the story of Mearns’ career. “Generally, you have a given number of days to finish a job no matter what, because after that you’ve got to go back to the port,” he says. “The project is funded only for that time period. There’s this pressure. It all comes to be a big challenge.”
It amounts to a copious adrenaline rush — but success also requires a positive outlook. Equipment might break or get lost, and Mearns might remain at sea in weather he can’t control, but he has to remain confident that his small team will solve all problems. “And when you are successful, it’s like a big celebration. The exhilaration is great. That’s what drives me. And I guess I rise to the challenge,” Mearns says.
But in the Sala plane recovery case, the emotional return was of a whole different nature.
“It was an unspeakable tragedy of a man struck down in the prime of his life that had an impact on me,” Mearns says. “I didn’t know Emiliano. I don’t really follow the French League. Learning about him through his sister, through his mother, through his agent, through all the social media messages I’ve been bombarded with…He was a tremendous guy. He had a real spirit for the game. So, even though I didn’t know him, I feel I know him now.”
And though the investigation into the crash is still ongoing — in June, a British man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter in the case — Mearns feels glad his volunteer hunt could give Sala’s family some degree of peace.
“He will never come back, but his family buried him,” Mearns says. “That is a very, very small consolation.”