Businessman who organised flight that killed Emiliano Sala jailed

12 November 2021, 12:18 | Updated: 12 November 2021, 13:19

David Henderson organised the flight that killed Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala
David Henderson organised the flight that killed Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

David Henderson, the businessman convicted over organising the flight that crashed into the English Channel killing footballer Emiliano Sala, has been sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court to 18 months in prison.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Henderson pleaded guilty to another charge of trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation.

Henderson, 67, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was convicted of endangering the safety of the aircraft after a trial at Cardiff Crown Court in October.

The plane, which was carrying 28-year-old Sala and pilot Dave Ibbotson, 59, crashed north of Guernsey on January 21 2019.

The body of Sala was recovered from the seabed a month later, but the body of Mr Ibbotson was never recovered.

When he was found guilty, the jury heard how Henderson had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane - who did not hold a commercial pilot's licence or a qualification to fly at night, and his rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.

Read more: Emiliano Sala: Flight organiser found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft

The flight the Argentinian player took was organised by Henderson, who was the plane's operator, with football agent William "Willie" McKay.

At the time, Sala was involved in a £15 million transfer to Cardiff City from Nantes FC, and was travelling between the two cities when he died.

Henderson's wife wept in court on Friday as Mr Justice Foxton sentenced her husband to 18 months in prison for endangering an aircraft, with a three-month sentence, to run concurrently, for attempting to discharge a passenger.

Mr Justice Foxton ruled at the start of the hearing that the victim impact statement of Sala's mother, Mercedes Taffarel, would not be read out in court after concerns were raised by Henderson's defence about its contents.

"My decision is not meant to diminish the devastating impact of the crash on Mrs Taffarel," Mr Justice Foxton said.

Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC had told the judge that Henderson was not "pressured" into organising the flight by Mr McKay, and did so "for financial advantage".

However, he said Henderson had no previous convictions and was of previous good character.

Stephen Spence QC, defending, told the judge his client did not necessarily profit from the flight and that pressure "could take many forms".

Mr Spence said: "People speak very highly of him both as a person but, interestingly, as a pilot."

But he said the crash and subsequent trial had damaged Henderson's reputation, ridding him of his "life and livelihood".

Henderson was said to have been affected physically and mentally by the crash and subsequent trial, and is now on beta blockers for a heart condition.

"It has also had a knock-on effect on his wife, who has been in court throughout the proceedings and is in court today," Mr Spence said.

"At his age and her age they were looking forward to a comfortable and modest retirement. Of course he now faces financial ruin.

"He feels very strongly that he has completely let her down. That is something he finds very, very hard to bear."

Mr Spence asked that any sentence be suspended.

Tributes poured in on the first anniversary of Sala's death
Tributes poured in on the first anniversary of Sala's death. Picture: Alamy

After finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of friends and colleagues telling them to stay silent, warning it would "open a can of worms".

"Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry," he texted one person.

In another message, he wrote: "Questions may be asked about his flying."

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

The jury were told he had failed to ring Mr Ibbotson's wife, Nora, to which Henderson replied: "I had no number for her."

Henderson was accused of running a "cowboy outfit" more focused on profit than the safety of his passengers.

Henderson's lawyer has paid his respects to Sala and Mr Ibbotson's families and said his legal team will consider an appeal against his conviction.

"Now that the case is concluded in the crown court, Mr Henderson wishes to formally pay his respects to the families of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson," said Andrew Shanahan, of Shanahan's Solicitors.

"It is important to point out that the Civil Aviation Authority have always accepted that the way in which the flight was arranged and operated did not cause the aircraft to crash.

"In due course the coroner at the inquest will make the ultimate decision about what caused the crash, but a report prepared by the Air Accident Investigation Branch suggests that a failure of part of the aircraft exhaust system led to Mr Ibbotson becoming incapacitated and thereby unable to maintain control of the aircraft.

"The Civil Aviation Authority have always accepted that the aircraft was properly maintained, and therefore any defect was not known or foreseen by Mr Henderson.

"We will now be considering whether to appeal against the conviction and/or sentence."

The plane's wreckage was not recovered from the seabed
The plane's wreckage was not recovered from the seabed. Picture: Alamy

In response to the sentence, Rob Bishton, group director of safety and airspace regulation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: "Our thoughts remain with the families and friends that were affected by this tragic accident in January 2019.

"Illegal commercial flights represent a significant safety risk and that is reflected in the court's decision today.

"The aviation system relies on the integrity of all those involved.

"Anyone operating a commercial flight should always have the necessary licence and approvals in place."