What happened to Emiliano Sala and what was the trial about?

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Kerton/PA</span>
Photograph: Mark Kerton/PA

What happened to Emiliano Sala?

The Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala, 28, was being flown from Nantes in France to the Welsh capital to join his new club, Cardiff City, on the evening of 21 January 2019 when the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft plunged into the Channel north of Guernsey in bad weather. His body was recovered from the seabed 68 metres down. The body of the pilot, David Ibbotson, from Lincolnshire, was not found.

Were there any problems with the plane?

According to a report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), Ibbotson heard a “bang” or “boom” during the outward flight and “sensed” mist in the aircraft. The report said he may have felt under pressure to make the return flight because he was being paid.

What happened on the flight back to Cardiff?

The AAIB report found that Ibbotson was probably manoeuvring to avoid heavy rain showers just before the plane crashed. It descended rapidly towards the sea and at the last minute Ibbotson tried to pull up. This caused such stress that it caused a wing and the tail section to break away. Investigators concluded that the plane was flying at 245 knots at the time of the accident – far above the 203 knots maximum speed allowed for the aircraft. They believe Ibbotson was probably suffering from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning when the accident happened, possibly caused by a fault in the exhaust tailpipe that allowed gas to enter the cabin through the heating system. The AAIB has called for it to be made mandatory for planes to carry CO monitors, which it said cost as little as £15.

Was Ibbotson competent?

A contributory factor in the crash, the AAIB said, was Ibbotson having no training in night flying, and a lack of recent practice in relying only on cockpit instruments. They found that he held a private pilot’s licence that did not allow him to conduct flights for money. There were issues with Ibbotson’s flying the year before the tragedy. The plane’s owner, Fay Keely, had told the operator, David Henderson, that Ibbotson should not fly the plane after she was notified of two airspace infringements he was involved in by the UK aviation regulator. In the summer of 2018 a friend sent Henderson a message: “The Ibbotson experience was interesting! He was all over the place.”

Why has David Henderson been put on trial?

Henderson, 67, a former RAF man from Hotham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, sometimes flew the plane and also found others to fly it. Cardiff crown court was told he knew that Ibbotson was not qualified to fly it. The prosecution flagged up one exchange between the pair in the hours before the crash that seemed to show a casual attitude to the rules. Henderson messaged: “Weather shit … can you blag IFR?” (IFR refers to flying using instruments rather than by sight.) Ibbotson replied: “Yes, done it before.”

What are ‘grey flights’?

The AAIB report found the plane should have been for private use only. No permission had been sought or granted that allowed the aircraft to be operated commercially. Unlicensed “grey” flights frequently take place in the world of sport, business and leisure. Crispin Orr, the chief inspector of the AAIB, said on the publication of its report: “The chartering of aircraft that are not licensed for commercial transport – so called ‘grey charters’ – is putting lives at risk.” When the AAIB report came out, Cardiff City said grey flights needed to be stopped and their use in football was putting lives at risk.

Who arranged the flight for Sala?

The jury was told that the football agent Willie McKay asked Henderson to fly Sala from Cardiff to Nantes and back. Henderson couldn’t do so as he was on holiday with his wife in Paris but organised for Ibbotson to do the job. Henderson sent McKay a note: “Can you ping me over £4k as float?” Henderson told the court that McKay could be “insistent”.

What happens next?

Sala’s family remain unconvinced that the full story of his death has been told and hope that a full inquest, due to take place next year, will get to the whole truth.

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