| 08.09,19. 07:20 AM |
Five feared dead after chopper goes down in bad weather off NSW coast
Photo: The restored Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter that crashed off the NSW coast during bad weather. (Supplied: Simon Coates)
Five people — four men and a woman — are missing feared dead after a private helicopter mysteriously vanished off the radar in bad weather in the Port Stephens area without issuing a mayday call.
It is understood the chopper was flying from Coffs Harbour to Bankstown when it disappeared about 6.15pm on Friday. Earlier reports also said it had taken off from Brisbane.
Rough weather was continuing to hamper a recovery mission for the helicopter.
Police said divers assessed the scene this afternoon and deemed conditions too dangerous to head underwater.
Police said the families of those missing had been contacted.
One of the missing is believed to be the pilot and owner of the operating company, Brisbane Helicopters, David Kerr.
A former business partner of Mr Kerr, Michael Jurgens, said the pilot was highly experienced.
"He had quite a few hours under his belt, flown a lot of different helicopters, could fly with the best of them, but unfortunately weather circumstances and whatever has happened," Mr Jurgens said.
The helicopter is believed to be a former military Bell UH-1 helicopter, known as a "Huey".
"It had just been fully restored at Archerfield [Airport] so quite a lot of money had gone into the machine," Mr Jurgens said.
"It was practically like a brand new helicopter and it had been test flown and everything, and had done quite a few flights.
"[There was] nothing wrong with the machine but unfortunately no-one knows what can go wrong when you go up in the air, anything can happen."
Debris unable to be recovered
An earlier search and rescue operation, covering 150 square nautical miles off Fingal Bay was suspended about lunchtime today after "expert medical advice" was received.
Weather conditions in the area at the time the helicopter went missing were poor with strong winds and reduced visibility.
Air traffic control indicated that the helicopter was rapidly losing altitude when contact was lost.
There were no detected emergency beacons signals or mayday calls.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said it had been contacted by Williamtown air traffic control at 6:15pm on Friday reporting that a helicopter had disappeared from radar about four nautical miles south of Fingal Bay.
During searches on Friday night, aircraft sighted an oil slick and several pieces of debris.
These were unable to be recovered due to weather conditions, but were in the area consistent with the helicopter's last known position.
When searching resumed at first light today, a rescue boat sighted the tail rotor of the missing helicopter in the search area.
Later today, a rescue helicopter located the main airframe of the helicopter semi-submerged in the search area about five miles south of Fingal Bay.
The airframe sank a short time later before rescue boats were able to reach the area.
AMSA said the location of the airframe was consistent with the "drift model" of where the helicopter was believed to have entered the water.
Earlier, the search had been coordinated by AMSA assisted by officers from the NSW Police Marine Area Command, Port Stephens-Hunter Police District, Westpac Rescue Helicopter, NSW Marine Rescue and various aerial support.