A businessman has been convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft after organizing the flight that crashed and killed soccer player Emiliano Sala in 2019 

The Piper Malibu aircraft, registered N264DB, was flying from Nantes to Cardiff on the evening of January 21, 2019 when it crashed into the English Channel, killing Sala and the pilot. Argentine Sala had just been signed to play for Cardiff City, transferring from Nantes. 

An investigation by the UK Air Accident Investigation Board, completed in March 2020, found that the pilot, David Ibbotson, and the plane did not have the required licenses or approvals to operate commercial flights. It concluded that the pilot lost control of the single-engine aircraft while turning, probably to avoid weather, and that he was likely affected by carbon monoxide poisoning.  

On October 28, 2021, David Henderson, who organized the flight with a soccer agent, was found guilty of endangering the aircraft by a majority verdict of 10 to two, according to British media. He had previously admitted to a charge of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorization. 

Cardiff Crown Court heard that Henderson had asked Ibbotson to pilot the plane because he was away on holiday. The prosecutor said Henderson had been “reckless or negligent” in his operation of the plane and that he ran a “cowboy operation”. 

The court heard that the plane’s owner had previously asked Henderson not to allow Ibbotson to pilot the plane after being contacted by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over airspace infringements. After hearing about the crash, Henderson texted several people telling them not to talk about it. 

The prosecutor said Henderson had created a culture of breaching air navigation regulations. 

Ibbotson regularly flew for Henderson, receiving payment despite not having a commercial pilot’s license. He did not have a rating to fly at night and his single engine piston rating had also expired. Henderson did not have an Air Operator’s Certificate. 

The defense argued that Henderson’s actions were purely a paperwork issue and not likely to cause danger. 

Henderson will be sentenced on November 12, 2021. 

In response to the conviction, the CAA said aviation safety relies on the integrity of everyone involved. “Unlawful and unsafe activity such as Mr Henderson's is unacceptable and the UK Civil Aviation Authority will always look to prosecute illegal activity,” Kate Staples, CAA General Counsel, said.

 
Sala crash flight route
Image: AAIB/Crown Copyright 2020