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Emiliano Sala death flight: Plane operator ran ‘cowboy outfit’, court told

·3 min read

A man on trial over organising the flight that crashed into the English Channel killing footballer Emiliano Sala has been accused of running a “cowboy outfit”.

David Henderson, 67, from the East Riding of Yorkshire, is charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft after a plane carrying the 28-year-old striker and pilot David Ibbotson went into the sea near Guernsey on the evening of January 21 2019.

The prosecution alleges 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.

Southampton v Cardiff City – Premier League – St Mary’s Stadium
Emiliano Sala was on his way to Cardiff City, his new club, when the plane carrying him crashed into the Channel (Mark Kerton/PA)

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 told the court he did not keep information about his pilots’ qualifications but said he trusted them, including Mr Ibbotson, to fly safely within their ability.

He said he did not tell William “Willie” McKay, a football agent who had asked him to fly Sala from Nantes, that Mr Ibbotson was not qualified to fly because he was confident he was an “experienced pilot who was keen and enthusiastic and wanted to fly”.

Martin Goudie QC, prosecuting, said: “What sort of cowboy outfit were you running at this time that you didn’t know if your pilot had his ratings or not?”

Under further cross-examination at Cardiff Crown Court on Friday, Henderson, a father-of-four and former RAF officer, admitted he was concerned his business would face investigation after Mr Ibbotson committed a number of airspace infringements in the months prior to the crash.

In a message to Mr Ibbotson at the time, Henderson 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.”

Mr Goudie said: “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?”

Sala plane crash report
Emiliano Sala’s body was recovered from the seabed before the wreckage and the body of pilot David Ibbotson were washed away (AAIB)

Henderson replied: “There’s probably some element of that, yes.”

The jurors have 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.”

Mr Goudie said: “We know why you said that, because Mr Ibbotson should never have been on that flight. This is about a cover-up, this text message, isn’t it?”

Henderson told the court he was concerned with the wrong information being leaked to the press, and said: “I was not covering up.”

The jury was also taken through text messages Henderson sent to the plane’s owner, Fay Keely, and others blaming the crash immediately on Mr Ibbotson.

Mr Goudie also directed the jury to look at call logs that showed the people Henderson rang after hearing about the crash, which included Mr Smith, Mr McKay and, eventually, Ms Keely.

He said: “You made no contact with Nora Ibbotson, the next of kin of the pilot.”

Henderson replied: “It would not be normal for me to contact the next of kin.”

Henderson has admitted being the operator of the plane but insists that, at the time, he believed the responsibility for the flight lay with the pilot in command, Mr Ibbotson.

The trial continued.

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