A man responsible for arranging the fatal flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala knew the man he selected to be the pilot wasn’t properly qualified, a court has heard.
Sala, who had just signed for Cardiff from Nantes, was on his way to his new club on a flight from France to Wales when the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft flown by pilot David Ibbotson crashed into the English Channel north of Guernsey.
The body of Mr Sala was recovered a month later. The body of Mr Ibbotson, 59, from Crowle, Lincolnshire, has never been found.
The man who organised the flight, David Henderson is on trial at Cardiff Crown Court and is accused of endangering the safety of an aircraft. He denies the charge against him.
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In its opening of the case, the prosecution said qualified pilot Henderson was unable to fly the aircraft himself as he was on a romantic break with his wife in Paris at the time. So, instead, he employed Mr Ibbotson to fly, who he had known for years.
However, the prosecution argues the defendant knew Mr Ibbotson did not have a commercial pilot’s licence, his rating to fly the plane had expired and he was not competent to fly in bad weather or at night. Jurors also heard the defendant was aware of “issues” with Mr Ibbotson’s flying in the past.
The Crown argues that the defendant still allowed the flight to go ahead out of “financial interest” and in doing so had acted “negligently or recklessly”.
And the court also heard that following the crash, Henderson contacted colleagues and told them “Not to say a word to anyone” and “Keep quiet”.
He also messaged a colleague, saying “Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP pax (passenger). Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry.”
In his opening of the case, prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said: “These flights were not operated and organised out of Mr Henderson’s love for Mr Sala or Cardiff Football City Club. They were organised because it was in his financial interest, he was to receive valuable consideration, a phrase we will come back to, in return for organising and operating these flights.”
The court heard the N264DB Piper Malibu aircraft was registered in the USA and was owned by trustor company Cool Flourish Ltd, which employed Henderson to run the operations of the aircraft – including organising and operating flights.
It is claimed the defendant had “significant history” with Mr Ibbotson but acted “recklessly and negligently” when he hired him to fly Mr Sala’s flight because he knew Mr Ibbotson was unqualified to pilot the plane and he was aware of his lack of ability.
The prosecution allege Henderson sought to “shift the blame” on to Mr Ibbotson following the crash and had lied about not knowing the pilot’s lack of qualifications.
Prior to the flight in January 21, 2019, Cool Flourish director Fay Keely was contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority about airspace infringements committed by Mr Ibbotson and she told Henderson he should not pilot N264DB again but he continued to employ Mr Ibbotson.
On July 3, 2018, Henderson was sent a text from an associate regarding Mr Ibbotson’s flying ability, which said: “The Ibbotson experience was interesting! He was all over the place. Had to help him out coming into White Waltham.”
There was also direct communication between Henderson and Mr Ibbotson in which the latter told the defendant he was unqualified to fly at night, but the defendant replied “Crack on”.
On January 17, 2019, Henderson was contacted to arrange a flight for Mr Sala from Cardiff to Nantes and back and on January 18, he contacted Mr Ibbotson with Mr Sala’s passport and details of flight times.
He expressed concerns about the weather and questioned Mr Ibotson’s ability to fly in those conditions, but the pilot responded: “Yes done it before just checking weather.”
On January 19, Mr Ibbotson flew Mr Sala from Cardiff to Nantes but during the flight he experienced difficulties which led to Henderson contacting aircraft engineer David Smith.
The return flight on January 21 was subsequently put back from 9am until after dark.
Mr Goudie said: “You can take into account that he raised no issue with Mr Ibbotson flying at such a time even though he knew full well Mr Ibbotson was not qualified to fly at night.
“Instead, his concerns seem to be about the extra cost that might be incurred, and it is that, not a night time flight which leads to a request by Mr Henderson, not Mr Ibbotson, to bring the time of the flight forward.”
The final flight left Nantes at 6.50pm with Mr Sala and Mr Ibbotson on board but at 9.23pm Henderson was in contact with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
At 9.41pm, he messaged Mr Smith to say “Malibu gone missing on way back from France” before adding “Don’t say a word to anyone.”
The next day, he messaged a colleague and said: “Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP pax! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry.”
At 8.24am, he messaged another colleague saying: “‘Bad news, Ibbo has crashed the Malibu. Need to talk to Hedley but questions may be asked about his flying.”
Further messages saw the defendant telling colleagues to “be very careful” and to “keep very quiet”
At 10.17am, he messaged Fay Keely, and said: “Hi Fay, I’m afraid I have bad news, David Ibbotson crashed the plane last night. He plus passenger killed. The passenger was a high profile footballer so I’m afraid there is going to be a big investigation. We need legal advice before we answer any questions. Please get back to me ASAP. Regards Dave.”
The court heard Henderson was arrested by Dorset Police on June 19, 2019, at his home in East Yorkshire and interviewed but he provided no comment.
In 2020, in response to communication with the CAA, he claimed he did not know the status of Mr Ibbotson’s licence and rating, denied being the operator of the aircraft as Mr Ibbotson held that role, and said he had no reason to believe Mr Ibbotson was not qualified or competent to fly the aircraft.
Henderson, of Hotham, East Riding, Yorkshire, denies endangering the safety of an aircraft. The trial continues.
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Recap the trial so far: