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

28 October 2021, 11:48 | Updated: 28 October 2021, 12:48

David Henderson has been found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft
David Henderson has been found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The businessman who organised the flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala has been found guilty of endangering the safety of the aircraft.

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David Henderson, 67, was convicted by a majority verdict of 10 to two over the death of the player by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court on Thursday.

The plane, carrying Sala, 28, 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.

Neither the body of Mr Ibbotson, nor the plane's wreckage, was ever recovered.

It took the jury of seven men and five women seven and a half hours to convict Henderson, the aircraft operator, who the trial heard had arranged the flight with football agent William 'Willie' McKay.

He had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane as he was away on holiday with his wife in Paris.

Mr Ibbotson, who regularly flew for him, did not hold a commercial pilot's licence, a qualification to fly at night, and his rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.

The wreckage of the plane
The wreckage of the plane. Picture: Alamy

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

The father-of-three and former RAF 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 to complete the flights.

Mr Goudie 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 pilot the plane again after being contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about two airspace infringements he had committed.

Despite this 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."

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

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

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

In his closing speech, he claimed Henderson ran an "incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organisation".

But 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 around 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 also argued on the stand that he had phoned Ms Keely after she forbade Mr Ibbotson from flying and convinced her to let him pilot again.

Ms Keely said she does 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.

He faces maximum sentences of five years imprisonment for endangering the aircraft and two years for the lesser charge.

The footballer died in the crash
The footballer died in the crash. Picture: Alamy

Responding to the verdict, the CAA sent their thoughts to those affected, and said they will "always look to prosecute illegal activity".

"Our thoughts remain with the families and friends that were affected by this accident in January 2019," said General Counsel Kate Staples.

"Aviation safety relies upon the integrity of everyone involved in the industry.

"Unlawful and unsafe activity such as Mr Henderson's is unacceptable and the UK Civil Aviation Authority will always look to prosecute illegal activity."

The plane was going from Nantes, France, to Cardiff, after Sala was involved in a multimillion pound transfer deal.

At a hearing in October 2020, the court heard how Mr Ibbotson's licence to fly an aircraft commercially had expired in November 2018.

A report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) previously reported that the pilot had been flying too fast for the plane's design limits and, while attempting to avoid bad weather, had lost control, breaking up in mid-air after a final manoeuvre to pull up the plane.

The report added that it was likely Mr Ibbotson was affected by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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