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WATCH: Report revealing doomed flight’s final moments raises more questions

WATCH: Report revealing doomed flight’s final moments raises more questions

Tuesday 26 February 2019

WATCH: Report revealing doomed flight’s final moments raises more questions

A report into the last moments of the doomed flight carrying footballer Emiliano Sala has led to more questions being raised - particularly over what led the aircraft to twist and turn before plummeting at a rate of 7,000ft/minute ahead of its crash, and the pilot's lack of commercial licence.

Released yesterday, the Air Accident Investigation Branch's interim report aimed to give an initial insight into how the flight from Nantes to Cardiff on 21 January met its tragic conclusion.

Ahead of its publication, there had been speculation over everything ranging from the pilot's credentials to the plane's condition and whether ice on the plane's wings may have been a problem.

Having digested the report, Express busts the myths and answers the key questions...

What happened in the final moments of the journey? 

While it remains unclear exactly what went on in the cockpit and passenger area, the AAIB were able to plot the aircraft’s final route through radar signals.

The plane took off at 19:15, with the planned route set to take it on an “almost direct” track from Nantes to Cardiff, flying over Guernsey en route. Pilot David Ibbotson planned to fly at an altitude of 6,000ft.


Pictured: A map showing the planned route (green) compared to the twists and turns the plane actually took before crashing (red).

Mr Ibbotson followed that plan until he flew over the Channel Islands around 20:00, when he asked Air Traffic Control to descend to an area of better visibility.

It was in the following minutes that the aircraft then took a number of turns, ascending and descending – at one point at a rate of 7,000ft/minute – before plummeting into the water.

The plane wreck was eventually found around 30metres from the last signal transmission at a depth of 68metres. 

Was the plane really "falling apart"?

In the wake of the footballer’s disappearance, a WhatsApp voice message sent as Sala was due to take off emerged in which he claims: “My plane seems to be falling apart… I’m so scared.”

But, despite this leading to fears over problems with the plane, the report didn’t suggest any major failings in the Piper Malibu aircraft’s structure.

Listen: Sala's final WhatsApp voice message expressing concern about the condition of the plane.

The single-engine plane was manufactured in 1984, with its frame having flown over 6,000 hours and its engine putting in 1,195 since its last overhaul. It had a valid Airworthiness Certificate too, and 100 hours of maintenance had been completed around two months prior to the fatal flight in November 2018.

Following the crash, some speculated that it may have had struggles with ice on the wings or problematic landing gear, but the AAIB said that it was fitted with retractable landing gear and an ice protection system, as well as equipment helping it be flown safely at night.

Life jackets and a six-man life raft were also on board. 

What was the wreck like?

Located at a depth of nearly 70metres underwater, the aircraft was said to be “extensively damaged”, as demonstrated through footage captured on video.

The report noted that its body was “In three parts” and only held together by electrical and flying control cables. 


Pictured: An image of the underwater wreckage, which was in three pieces, taken from video footage.

It read: “The engine had disconnected from the cockpit area, and the rear section of the fuselage had broken away from the forward section adjacent to the trailing edge of the wing. The outboard section of both wings, tail plane and fin were missing.”

Where’s the ‘little black box’?

The report did not mention a flight recorder box being on board, which may have provided an insight into whether there were any technical difficulties in the flight’s final moments. 

Mr Ibbotson was said to have used a tablet for his flight planning and navigation, but this – like his body – was not found during investigation of the wreck.

sala ibbotson

Pictured: David Ibbotson used a tablet for flight planning and navigation.

His plane was equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter, but its transmissions can not be detected underwater. 

What was the weather like?

A Jersey Met forecast said that there was to be a northwesterly cold front, bringing rain along overnight.

Guernsey Airport observations showed that visibility levels were above 10km, but that there were “light showers of remain” and some clouds.


Pictured: The aircraft appeared to pass through a patch of bad weather as it flew over the Channel Islands.

As Mr Ibbotson flew the plane over the Channel Islands, weather data shows that a “band of showers, some heavy” passed through his area of flight.

Did Mr Ibbotson have the right licence?

Mr Ibbotson was permitted to fly, but the report noted that he did not possess a commercial licence allowing him to make money from flying a passenger.

The pilot was, however, permitted to fly a passenger on a cost-sharing basis – meaning that Sala would not have been allowed to pay more than half the cost of making the flight.


Pictured: Mr Ibbotson would have been allowed to fly Sala for "hire or reward" under the terms of his licence, but could "cost share" with the footballer.

Leisure pilots often opt to ‘cost share’, as it allows them to build up their flying experience, while splitting the bill for fuel, landing fees and other expenses. 

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations also state that Mr Ibbotson would have needed a “bona fide” reason to be making the flight and would be breaking rules if the flight was “for the purpose of  merely transporting the passenger.”

It is known that Mr Ibbotson flew Mr Sala to Nantes where he said goodbye to his former football teammates before making his move to Wales, but it is unclear whether there was an arrangement between the two.


Pictured: Texts between Sala and agent Willie McKay's son regarding the flight.

A series of text messages released by agent Willie McKay, who helped broker Sala’s record signing to Premier League club Cardiff FC, suggest that Sala didn’t pay any money for the flight, however.

The AAIB said the matter needs further investigation.

What do Cardiff FC think?

Cardiff FC, who are refusing to pay Sala’s transfer fee to Nantes until crucial questions are answered, remain unsatisfied.

They said they had “grave concerns” over Mr Ibbotson’s lack of commercial licence, with a spokesperson adding: "We are also concerned to discover that the trip involved an aircraft which did not conform to either UK CAA or US FAA requirements for commercial activity and therefore may have been operating unlawfully. We welcome further investigation into the accident, which is required to determine precisely what happened, and to ensure changes are made so that this situation never happens again."

Where do the investigations go next?

The AAIB says it has a few primary areas of focus now:

  • Refine the analysis of the radar information to try and understand the last few minutes of the flight. 
  • Assess the possible implications of the weather conditions in the area at the time of the accident. 
  • Determine the aircraft attitude as it entered the water. 
  • Consider the regulatory requirements surrounding the flight including airworthiness requirements, aircraft permissions and flight crew licencing.

However, their final report into what happened may take as much as a year before it is ready.

What questions remain?

In many ways, the report raises more questions than answers.

Why did the plane make all the twists and turns before landing? Was it down to a technical failure or human error? How much of a part did the weather play?

What happened to Mr Ibbotson’s body and flight planning tablet?

Was the flight ‘commercial’ and therefore unlawful?

Read the full report here...

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