North Mayo gardaí say that the Rescue 116 helmet and lifejacket discovered on a beach at the weekend belongs to missing Irish Coast Guard winchman Ciarán Smith.
The equipment was found on the Mullet peninsula shoreline east of the Inishkea islands on Saturday, and was handed in to Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet Garda station.
Mr Smith, a father of three from north Dublin, and his winch operator colleague Paul Ormsby have been missing since the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter crashed with the loss of all four on board on March 14th last.
Areas around the crash location at Blackrock island, 13km west of the Mullet peninsula, and points north, south and west of the rock have been searched extensively over the past six months.
Supt Healy said the personal locator beacon (PLB) worn by Mr Smith was in the lifejacket, which was inflated when found. He said it would be submitted for detailed examination.
The PLBs worn by Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy, Mr Smith and Mr Ormsby were designed to give a satellite position in an emergency, but failed to function.The PLBs belonging to Capt Fitzpatrick and Capt Duffy have already been submitted for examination as part of the investigations.
The Air Accident Investigation Unit’s (AAIU) preliminary report noted that the locator beacons had been installed in the same pouch as the GPS antenna, as per a service bulletin issued by the lifejacket manufacturer.
However, the report notes the beacon manufacturer’s service bulletin recommended a minimum separation distance of 30cm between the GPS antenna and beacon to ensure the beacons functioned. It recommended a review of their use in air crew lifejackets.
Supt Healy said that gardaí and Irish Coast Guard shore volunteers searched the area where the lifejacket and helmet were found on Saturday and Sunday, and further shoreline areas were walked on Monday by gardaí and RNLI lifeboat volunteers.
“Weather for the next couple of days is not suitable for sea searches, but we will assess the situation and Civil Defence members may return with drones for more extensive searching at the weekend,” Supt Healy said.
The lifejackets worn by the four crew had to be manually inflated, but Supt Healy said the lifejacket may have inflated when its cord snagged on something before being washed ashore.
The most recent concerted multi-agency search for the two missing men was in late July, when a weather window eased the swell which is almost constant around Blackrock island.
The Irish Lights ship Granuaile returned with the Marine Institute remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and the team surveyed seabed areas around the rock.
A fishing vessel fitted with a bespoke net had trawled areas around the island and in Blacksod Bay the previous week, with the assistance of the Garda Water Unit. A group of 25 Irish Underwater Council-approved club divers also searched Duvillaun to the south and the Inishkea islands to the north.
A 360-degree search of Blackrock island was conducted by Army mountaineers and Garda technical experts in April, while over 110 fishing vessels and RNLI lifeboats undertook a large scale surface sweep of more than 8,500sq km of sea and some 170 trained club divers undertook a series of dives around Blackrock.
The AAIU and Garda inquiries into the crash are still continuing.