Pilot, 67, who organised doomed flight that crashed and killed footballer Emiliano Sala is jailed for 18 months

  • David Henderson was jailed this afternoon by a judge at Cardiff Crown Court
  • 67-year-old arranged private plane for footballer Emiliano Sala in January 2019 
  • The aircraft fell into English Channel, killing Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, 59 

The businessman who organised the doomed flight that crashed and killed footballer Emiliano Sala was today sentenced to 18 months in prison. 

David Henderson, 67, from East Riding in Yorkshire, was jailed by a judge at Cardiff Crown Court. 

Salah, 28, and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died when the private plane they were flying in fell into the English Channel in January 2019.  

Henderson, a pilot himself, was unavailable to fly the plane that crashed and killed Mr Sala because he was on holiday in Paris with his wife.

Mr Ibbotson, who Henderson hired instead, did not hold a commercial pilot’s licence, was not allowed to fly at night, and had an expired rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft.

Judge Mr Justice Foxton granted Henderson bail to return to be sentenced for both offences on November 12, where he faces a maximum prison term of five years. 

Today, Henderson’s lawyer has said his legal team will consider an appeal against his conviction. 

David Henderson, 67, who recruited fellow pilot David Ibbotson, 59, as a last-minute stand-in to fly the plane from France to Cardiff airport, was found guilty over the deadly plane crash today

Emiliano Sala, pictured, was onboard the chartered aircraft flown by Mr Ibbotson when it crashed into the English Channel while he was being transported from his former club Nantes to Cardiff, where he had just signed a multi-million-pound deal

N264DB, on the ground at Nantes Airport, France, prior to the flight which crashed into the Channel killing footballer Emiliano Sala

Andrew Shanahan, of Shanahan’s Solicitors, said: ‘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.

‘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.’  

Sala was involved in a multimillion-pound transfer deal to Cardiff City FC from Nantes FC in 2019 and was travelling between the two clubs at the time of his death. 

A plane carrying the 28-year-old striker and pilot Mr Ibbotson went into the sea near Guernsey on the evening of January 21, 2019.  

Henderson had been accused of running a ‘cowboy outfit’ after he admitted not keeping basic information on the pilots he employed.  

The prosecution had alleged Henderson was ‘reckless and negligent’ in allowing Mr Ibbotson to fly because he was not qualified to fly at night and did not have a commercial pilot’s licence.  

Although Henderson admits he knew Mr Ibbotson only had a private pilot’s licence (PPL), he told Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) investigators and the police that he was not aware the pilot did not have a certificate to fly after dark.

However, text messages between himself and Mr Ibbotson in the months leading up to the crash show them discussing the pilot’s lack of a night-time flying qualification and Henderson encourages him to get it to ‘make it official’. 

Henderson also told the unqualified pilot to ‘blag’ his way through the fatal flight. 

More messages exposed how he tried to cover his tracks after the crash. ‘Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry,’ he wrote. 

Jurors later heard that messages sent by Henderson after the crash included telling aircraft engineer David Smith to ‘keep very quiet’, adding: ‘Need to be very careful. Opens up a whole can of worms.’  

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

Cardiff Crown Court heard David Ibbotson, right, had been banned from flying the aircraft by its owner Fay Keely had been notified by the Civil Aviation Authority that he had previously infringed two aviation rules while in the air

Football agent William ‘Willie’ McKay had a ‘preoccupation’ with securing a pilot to transport Sala between Cardiff and Nantes in France, the court previously heard

Image issued by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the wreckage of the plane

How Sala’s family welcomed Henderson’s conviction

The family of Emiliano Sala has welcomed the conviction of the man who organised the doomed flight leading to his death but they still have unanswered questions, their solicitor said.

Speaking after a jury at Cardiff Crown Court convicted David Henderson, Daniel Machover, of Hickman & Rose solicitors, said: ‘Mr Henderson’s convictions are welcome and we hope the CAA will ensure that illegal flights of this kind are stopped. 

‘The actions of David Henderson are only one piece in the puzzle of how the plane David Ibbotson was illegally flying came to crash into the sea on 21 January 2019.

‘We still do not know the key information about the maintenance history of the aircraft and all the factors behind the carbon monoxide poisoning revealed in August 2019 by AAIB.

‘The answers to these questions can only be properly established at Emiliano’s inquest, which is due to start in February next year.

‘The Sala family fervently hope that everyone involved in the inquest will provide full disclosure of material without further delay, including Piper Aircraft Inc and the AAIB. This should ensure that the inquest can fulfil its function of fully and fearlessly examining the evidence so that all the facts emerge.

‘Only if that happens will Emiliano’s family finally know the truth about this tragedy enabling all the lessons to be learned, so that no family goes through a similar preventable death.’

 

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.’

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.

Kate Staples, General Counsel at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: ‘Our thoughts remain with the families and friends that were affected by this accident in January 2019. 

‘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.’ 

Cardiff City said they would not make a statement following the verdict however someone close to the club said they would welcome the result.

They said: ‘This is a positive verdict and the club will hope it brings some sense of justice and closure to both David and Emiliano’s families.

‘The club itself has been cleared of any wrongdoing and they will be pleased that has been acknowledged by the result in court.’

The source said Chairman Mehmet Dalman and others at the club were fighting to put an end to ‘third-party’ flights.

He said: ‘The club has calling for an end to these flights which are being arranged by third-parties.

‘They have worked with the Government and the FA to call for better regulation and to stop illegal flights putting profits ahead of people.’ 

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.” 

 

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