Businessman who organised fatal Emiliano Sala flight guilty of aircraft endangerment

Footballer died when small plane crashed into English Channel in 2019

The UK businessman who organised the flight that crashed, killing footballer Emiliano Sala, has been convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft.

David Henderson was found guilty by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court on Thursday.

Soccer Football - Cardiff City - Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Britain - January 23, 2019   General view of tributes left outside the stadium for Emiliano Sala  REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

The small plane carrying 28-year-old Sala crashed into the English Channel off the coast of Guernsey on a stormy evening in January 2019, during a trip from his French club in Nantes to Cardiff, Wales, where Cardiff City had signed him in a multimillion-pound transfer deal.

The Argentinian striker and the pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died.

The aircraft operator, Henderson, 67, arranged the flight with former football agent William “Willie” McKay but was unable to fly the plane himself because he was with his wife in Paris.

Instead, he asked Mr Ibbotson, who regularly flew for him despite not holding a commercial pilot’s licence or a qualification to fly at night, and whose rating to fly the American aircraft, a single-engine Piper Malibu, had expired.

The jury heard how, only moments after finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent because it would “open a can of worms”.

The father-of-three and former Royal Air Force officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.

Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said Henderson had been “reckless or negligent” in the way he operated the plane, putting his business above the safety of passengers by using an authorised plane and hiring pilots neither qualified nor competent.

He said Henderson had created a culture of breaching the air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.

The owner of the plane, Fay Keely, had told Henderson not to allow Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane again after being contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority about two airspace infringements he had committed.

But Henderson allowed Mr Ibbotson to continue flying, and in a message to the pilot said: “We both have an opportunity to make money out of the business model but not if we upset clients or draw the attention of the CAA.”

Henderson did not have a Foreign Carrier Permit which was needed to fly passengers in the American plane, or an Air Operator Certificate, which he was required to obtain.

During the trial Mr Goudie accused Henderson of lying in his statements to investigators and of running a “cowboy outfit”, after questioning the accused over why he failed to keep basic information on his pilots.

In his closing speech, he said Henderson ran an “incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organisation”.

Stephen Spence QC, defending, said his client’s actions were “purely a paperwork issue” and had not led to a likelihood of danger.

He said his client knew Mr Ibbotson, who had been flying for decades and had accumulated about 3,500 flying miles, was an experienced pilot.

And that Mr Ibbotson, as pilot of that flight, had been in charge of ensuring their safe passage home.

He told the court the only difference between a commercial licence and the private licence held by Mr Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, and not about ability.

Henderson told the court he had phoned Ms Keely after she forbade Mr Ibbotson from flying and convinced her to let him pilot again.

Ms Keely said she did not remember such a call.

Henderson, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, had already admitted a separate offence of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.

Judge Mr Justice Foxton granted Henderson bail to return to be sentenced for both offences on November 12.

Updated: October 28th 2021, 11:54 AM