Divers launch search for fatal chopper crash
POLICE divers have returned to the site of a horrific helicopter crash off Port Stephens this morning to prepare for the first significant attempt at finding the machine and its five missing occupants.
Five days of relentlessly high seas and poor weather has thwarted any considered attempt at positively locating the helicopter, which dropped off the radar last Friday night in horrendous conditions.
Respected pilot David Kerr, Queensland mates Jamie Ogden and Grant Kuhnemann, and Sydney couple Jocelyn Villanueva and Gregory Miller are all believed to be have perished in the crash.
Searchers have been unable to pinpoint the resting place of the 1966 Bell UH- 1H, a type used by US and Australian forces in the Vietnam War and modified by Mr Kerr.
However, an area about three nautical miles (5.5km) off Birubi Point - at the northern end of Stockton Beach - has been identified as the place where the helicopter, nicknamed "Huey", crashed into the sea at speeds of up to 280km/h.
Expert advice suggested similar helicopters were known to sink quickly, rather than float away in strong currents, leaving searchers to hope that divers will be able to quickly locate any wreckage on the sea floor once they hit the water.
And although it is unknown how damaged the wreckage could be - or even whether any bodies remain with the sunken machine - the lack of debris found in the six days since the crash could suggest it remains relatively intact.
Water police vessels will aid the police divers after a risk assessment of the area was conducted on Wednesday afternoon.
The divers boarded a water police launch at Nelson Bay just after dawn on Thursday before travelling out of Port Stephens and south towards the search site.
The initial operation will focus on locating the helicopter before possibly retrieving any bodies.
Any plan to float and salvage the machine will be made afterwards.
The Australian Safety Transport Bureau said investigators would examine any recovered wreckage, interview witnesses, assess aircraft and pilot records and weather information, and review any available recorded data.
The helicopter had left Mr Kerr's hangar in Archerfield and stopped at Coffs Harbour Airport about 4pm on Friday to refuel.
It was destined for Bankstown Airport when it took off an hour later but flew straight into strong westerly winds sweeping across the east coast with a cold front.
The last communication between Mr Kerr and air traffic control was a request to travel at a higher altitude.
There was no mayday call.
Investigators have also renewed appeals for witnesses who saw the helicopter fly over Anna Bay on Friday night to contact authorities.