THE RAF plane joining the hunt for four British sailors missing in the Atlantic is this afternoon scheduled to have reached its search zone.
The C130 Hercules took off from RAF Brize Norton at 5am this morning to join the massive international hunt for the the Cheeki Raffiki crew.
Hampshire sailor James Male, 23, from Romsey is among the four crew members of the 40ft stricken yacht's crew which capsized off the coast of the USA.
It includes coastguard ships and planes supported by US and Canadian military aircraft and more than 40 private vessels.
The US Coastguard is expected to hold a press briefing at 7pm tonight with updates on the operation's progress.
The C130 Hercules stopped to refuel briefly in Lajes in Portugal before heading to the search zone.
The Ministry of Defence were unable to confirm its exact arrival but will report back on its progress later today.
James and his crew members - experienced captain Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham in Surrey, Steve Warren, 52, from Bridgwater, Somerset, and Paul Goslin, 56, from West Camel, Somerset - have been missing since their yacht ran into difficulties about 620 miles east of Cape Cod on Thursday while returning to the UK from a regatta in Antigua.
Contact with the vessel was lost in the early hours of Friday when they diverted to the Azores.
The US Coastguard initially called off its search for the missing men on Sunday after spending two days hunting for the capsized vessel.
But it decided to recommence its efforts after pressure from the UK government, the families of the crew, figures from across the world ofsailing and an online petition that attracted more than 200,000 signatures
The US Coast Guard is overseeing a large scale air and sea search of the ocean 1,000 miles east of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
An MoD spokesman said: ''We can confirm that the UK will be providing military assistance in the search for the four British sailors.
''A C130 aircraft was deployed from RAF Brize Norton at 0500 on May 21 and has started to move towards the search area where it will join the international search and rescue effort.''
It comes as it was revealed that air crews hunting for the sailors have scoured almost 3,000 square miles since resuming their search.
The move was welcomed by Mr Males' father Graham, who said: "It's absolutely fantastic and surpassed everything we could have wished for.
"It's a very large seach area and it's brilliant they are carrying every aspect they can do to get everything into this search area."
He said he was "very positive" of their chances of rescue and added: "We are waiting for news.
"There's so much happening and changing by the minute and for us it's keeping up with that."
Romsey MP Caroline Nokes said the search area has been expanded but there are currently no further updates.
The US Coastguard initially called off its search for the missing men on Sunday after spending two days hunting for the capsized vessel, the 40ft Cheeki Rafiki.
But it decided to recommence its efforts after pressure from the UK government, the families of the crew, figures from across the world of sailing and an online petition that attracted more than 200,000 signatures.
The US Coast Guard said four vessels, two US aircraft and a Canadian military plane, were involved in searching an area about 1,000 miles east of Cape Cod in Massachusetts by air and sea.
In a statement it said: ''Air crews have searched a total of 2,878 square miles since the search has resumed. The square mileage for ship searches is still being determined.
''Weather on scene is 6ft seas with winds at less than 10 knots.''
A further three ships and a US Air Force plane were on the way to assist, the coastguard added.
The four men - experienced captain Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham in Surrey and crew members James Male, 23, from Romsey, Steve Warren, 52, from Bridgwater, Somerset, and Paul Goslin, 56, from West Camel, Somerset - have been missing since their yacht ran into difficulties about 620 miles east of Cape Cod on Thursday while returning to the UK from a regatta in Antigua.
Meanwhile a flotilla of more than 40 small vessels are evoking the spirit of the the 1940 Dunkirk by joining the search.
They include eight yachts and a further 32 vessels from Antigua, many of which have been competing in regattas in the Caribbean.
Contact with the yacht was lost in the early hours of Friday when they diverted to the Azores.
The US Coast Guard, Canadian aircraft and three merchant vessels searched for them throughout Friday and Saturday but called off efforts on Sunday at 5am local time amid treacherous weather.
Yesterday the sailors' families travelled to London to meet foreign minister Hugh Robertson and to the US embassy and spoke of their delight that US authorities had agreed to continue the search.
Cressida Goslin, Mr Goslin's wife, said the families had been through an ''emotional rollercoaster'' since Friday.
Some 4,000 square miles were previously scanned for the vessel's two personal location GPS beacons until no more transmissions were received from the small devices, which have a short battery life.
On Saturday, a cargo vessel which was helping with the search spotted and photographed an overturned hull which matched the description of the Cheeki Rafiki but reported no signs of people on board or a life raft.