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Fatal Sala flight organiser sent to prison

Fatal Sala flight organiser sent to prison

Friday 12 November 2021

Fatal Sala flight organiser sent to prison

Friday 12 November 2021

The organiser of the illegal final flight of footballer Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, which ditched into the sea near Guernsey, has been sentenced to 18 months behind bars.

David Henderson (67) was handed his sentence in Cardiff Crown Court this morning, two weeks after a jury found him guilty of endangering the safety of the aircraft.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority said afterwards: “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.”

The single-engine Piper Malibu carrying the Argentinian striker from Nantes to his new football club in Cardiff and Mr Ibbotson, who was flying the plane, ditched into the sea in January 2019.

The wreckage was located and Mr Sala’s body was recovered from the seabed the following month, but Mr Ibbotson was never found.

Henderson, a pilot from Yorkshire who was originally due to fly the plane, was charged with acting in a “reckless/negligent manner” likely to endanger the safety of an aircraft, and attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation in October 2020. 

On the first day of the trial, the father-of-three and former RAF officer pleaded guilty to the second charge, but still faced trial for the first, which relates to the fact that Mr Ibbotson had been contracted to fly the aircraft despite not holding a valid commercial pilot’s licence at the time, and that he was not “competent to fly” in the type of bad weather forecast for the journey.


Pictured: The plane wreckage captured on camera underwater.

The prosecution argued that Henderson was well aware of this, but decided to arrange the flight anyway.

The Court heard that Henderson was not available to fly the aircraft himself because he was in Paris, so instead arranged for Mr Ibbotson to carry the footballer, even though he was not appropriately qualified, following a request from football agent Willie McKay.

In response to the request, he asked for “£4k as [a] float”.

Martin Goudie QC, prosecuting, said that Henderson “ignored certain requirements when it suited him and his business interests.”

The jury was told of a message in which Henderson described Mr Ibbotson’s flying in summer 2018 as “interesting”, adding that “he was all over the place.”

When Henderson heard about the crash near Guernsey, the Court heard that he wrote in another message: “Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP pax! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry.”

To another person, he wrote, “Opens up a whole can of worms. Keep very quiet,” and told the plane’s engineer “Don’t say a word to anyone” after speaking to the coastguard about the crash.

Later in the trial, Henderson admitted that he wasn’t aware which qualifications his pilots had.

In response, prosecuting lawyer Martin Goudie QC asked: “What sort of cowboy outfit were you running at this time that you didn't know if your pilot had his ratings or not?"

The court had heard that one message sent to Mr Ibbotson said that Henderson did not want to “draw the attention of the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority, ed.].”

On this, Mr Goudie asked: "Isn't the true situation that you didn't want anyone looking at how you were running these flights because you knew you were running them illegally?"

To this, Henderson replied that “there’s probably some element of that, yes.”

Mr Goudie also suggested that Henderson acted out of “financial interest”, saying: "Isn't the true situation that you didn't want anyone looking at how you were running these flights because you knew you were running them illegally?"

Elsewhere in the trial, Henderson told the jury that football agent Willy McKay may have let unqualified Mr Ibbotson fly Sala, when asked by defence lawyer Stephen Spence whether Mr McKay would have cared about his lack of qualifications.

"I don't know if he wouldn't have cared, but as I say, his preoccupation was to get a pilot. I think he would have gone ahead with the flight anyway,” said Henderson.

According to reports, lawyers acting for Sala's family welcomed Henderson's conviction but noted that his involvement with the doomed flight was only "one piece of the puzzle".

Now court proceedings have concluded, Sala's inquest will be able to finish, shedding light on exactly how the footballer came by his death.

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