Police say they believe a pilot and a TV camera operator whose aircraft crashed into the water off Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula were both killed.
Pilot Stephen Gale and his passenger, James Rose, were on board one of two light Viper S-211 Marchetti planes conducting a formation flight that collided mid-air about 1.45pm on Sunday.
Their aircraft plunged about 20 metres into Port Phillip Bay, while the other plane, which also had two people on board, was able to land safely at Essendon airport.
On Monday Victoria police Insp, Terry Rowlands, confirmed two people were believed to have died in the crash.
“At this point in time, it is solely a recovery mission,” Rowlands told reporters at Mount Martha, about 7km northwest from the crash site.
“[It is] unbelievably tragic for the families and all involved.”
He said water police and the air wing resumed their search for the plane’s wreckage at first light and were being supported by other agencies, including the Port of Melbourne authority and coast guard.
“It’s three nautical miles offshore. The search area actually encapsulates quite a large area, which in itself is a couple of nautical miles,” Rowlands said.
“Divers haven’t entered the water as yet, as I understand, and won’t do [so] until there is some wreckage that’s located. I believe the search that’s being undertaken now is to find any debris that may be floating and also sonar equipment is being used to try and locate anything that might be on the seafloor.”
He said conditions on the bay had been calm, which could assist in the search.
Rowlands also confirmed reports wreckage from the jet was retrieved from the bay before the search was paused overnight. Guardian Australia understands the wreckage included a plane tyre and part of a wing.
He urged anyone who has spotted wreckage to contact triple-zero.
Gale is the owner of Jetworks Aviation and according to the company’s website was formerly a Royal Australian Air Force engineer who “took up flying at a slightly later age”.
He holds a commercial command instrument rating and a low level formation aerobatic rating.
According to the Jetworks Aviation website, the Essendon Fields-based flying school was specifically created for the Any Fool Can Fly television documentary. The school also conducted flight training and joy rides, with one package offering a 45-minute two-jet fighter formation flight.
The chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), Angus Mitchell, said the jets were conducting a promotional shoot at the time of the crash.
Rose had tagged a video production company in a social media post just hours before the crash, which appeared to show him sitting in the cockpit of one of the jets.
“They’ve been in formation flying, which means that they are, by necessity, in close proximity to do that shoot,” Mitchell said.
“Now, something obviously has gone wrong that the two of them have come into contact. Exactly what has gone wrong and what is the circumstances that it led up to it is certainly going to be a part of our investigation.”
Mitchell said the jets were used across the globe, including by militaries and for joy flights.
“They are fast jets so they’re capable of doing well over 700km/h. So exactly what was happening at this particular point in time, we’re yet to determine. But these planes are high-performance planes,” he said.
Mitchell added that ATSB investigators would speak to the surviving pilot on Monday to get a better picture of what happened. He said it was the fourth mid-air collision to occur in Australia in the last 12 months.
Rose, a talented drone operator, worked on high-profile TV shows, including for the Nine Network, Seven Network and production company EndemolShine, which produces MasterChef.
On Monday morning his father, David Rose, returned to Mount Martha Life Saving Club with family.
He did not wish to speak to media but in a statement to the Herald Sun said he was “so proud” of his son.
“He is recognised as one of the best drone operators in Australia and worked on all the big-name TV shows,” Rose said. “That’s why he was up there in the plane.”
– With Australian Associated Press