UPDATE 9.45am A desperate search ended in tragedy last night when a young pilot died after a plane crash near Broome’s Cable Beach.
The twin-engine Piper Seneca, owned by Golden Eagle Airlines, was reported to have been experiencing engine difficulties after it took off from Broome Airport.
It was initially believed to have crashed into the ocean off Cable Beach about 8.15pm.
Police, Sea and Rescue members and the Port Hedland Port Authority started searching for the wreckage about 300m to 800m offshore.
They were joined by two Customs vessels and an Emergency Services plane.
The plane was eventually found in sand dunes near the end of the runway just after midnight.
The male pilot was the only person aboard the plane, which was carrying cargo to Port Hedland.
The body of the 27-year-old pilot has been recovered.
Golden Eagle Airlines this morning released a statement saying the company was mourning the loss of a friend and pilot.
“Our condolences go out to his family and friends,” the statement said. “The company appreciates the rapid response of personnel involved in the search and rescue operations.”
The statement said the Piper Seneca aircraft had been on a regular freight flight and took off in good conditions.
It said the pilot could not be contacted after take off and the cause of the crash was unknown.
“A thorough investigation into the accident will be carried out by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau with full co-operation of the company,” the statement said. “Golden Eagle Airlines has operated in the region for 22 years without major incident.”
The owners of the company are travelling to Broome today.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau officers will work with police and coronial staff to investigate the cause of the crash and have asked for witnesses to contact them.
ATSB spokesman Joe Hattley told ABC radio this morning the investigation is likely to take about 12 months. Three investigators have been sent to Broome.
He said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash.
Investigators would talk to any witnesses and examine the wreckage, a process likely to take at least two days.
Acting Sen. Sgt Steven Walker said witnesses reported seeing lights similar to those on a plane entering the bay at the end of the airport runway.
He said there had been no communication with the plane and no distress signal had been received.
ATSB spokesman Daniel O’Malley said it was too early at this stage to say what caused the crash and the ATSB were appealing for witnesses.
“We understand there were quite a few eye and ear witnesses and we are eager to hear from people.”
Witnesses should contact ATSB on 1800 020 616.
Freelance cameraman Paul Bell told ABC radio this morning that finding the wreckage of the plane in the sand dunes had been "pretty horrific".
Were you at the concert last night or did you witness the crash? Email us your pictures or MMS 0402 228221.
"It was pretty much straight off the end of the runway, over the highway and into the sand dunes," Mr Bell told ABC radio.
"People would know the pilot and they know Golden Eagle - they have been up here for a long time.
"There would have been maybe ten or more boats going up and down looking into the water with spotlights,” Mr Bell told ABC Radio.
When the wreckage was discovered in sand dunes, it was immediately apparent no-one could have survived the crash, he said.
Golden Eagle Airlines says it has been operating in the region without incident for 22 years.
Hundreds of people were gathered in the Cable Beach amphitheatre for The Reef concert, performed by violinist Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra and Tura New Music, when they were told the performance would go straight to anintermission because of an emergency.
Audience members said they heard a sound similar to that of a gunshot or a large thud shortly before the announcement.
Broome Volunteer Sea Rescue Group deputy commander Miranda Dibdin said two sea rescue vessels were launched as soon as they were told of the crash about 8.30pm.
She said several other private boats joined the search. “It was a very good community response,” she said.
Boats searched a one to two nautical mile stretch from Gantheaume Point lighthouse to just past Cable Beach Club resort.
“It was a very dark night, there was no moonlight,” she said. “But the sea was reasonably calm.”
The boats returned to shore only when the wreckage was found in sand dunes.
One witness said she noticed a sound like a boom or a bang but it was not particularly loud and she did not think much of it.
Ten minutes later, a group ofpeople had run down the side of the audience and ripped down event fencing to let emergency services have access to the beach.
After 20 minutes emergency crews relocated to a different access to the beach allowing the concert program to continue.
This morning Tura New Music and the Australian Chamber Orchestra extended their "deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased as well as to the broader community of Broome".
A witness staying in accommodation off Cable Beach Road reported seeing a small plane flying overhead and start spinning in mid-air before they heard a noise like something hitting water.
Police, firefighters and ambulance officers used the Broome Surf Life Saving Club as a base to conduct the search. Boat owners and the Broome Volunteer Sea Rescue Group also assisted in the search.
Golden Eagle Airlines is a charter service that operates in the North West. Its head office is in Port Hedland.
Police have not released the pilot's name.