Clinical Negligence & Catastrophic Injury Solicitors
Organiser of fatal flight convicted.
The organiser of the airplane flight in which footballer Emiliano Sala died has been found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
Sala, 28, and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died in the crash in the English Channel in January 2019.
The flight organiser, David Henderson, 67, of Hotham, East Riding of Yorkshire, was found guilty after a trial at Cardiff Crown Court. He had also previously admitted trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation.
The jury took seven-and-a-half hours to convict Henderson by a majority verdict. He will be sentenced on 12 November.
Argentine striker, Sala, and Mr Ibbotson died after their single-engine Piper Malibu plunged into the English Channel on a flight between Cardiff and Nantes in January 2019, set up by Henderson with football agent William "Willie" McKay.
The footballer was involved in a £15m transfer to Cardiff City from Nantes and was travelling between the two cities when the airplane crashed into the English Chanel.
The court heard how Ibbotson, who regularly flew for Henderson, did not hold a commercial pilot's licence, a qualification to fly at night, and his rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
Henderson had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane as he was away on holiday with his wife in Paris.
The jury heard that Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent moments after finding out the plane had gone down, warning it would "open a can of worms.”
The father-of-three and former RAF officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.
Prosecutor, Martin Goudie, QC said Henderson had been "reckless or negligent" in how he operated the plane, by putting his business above the safety of passengers. He added that Henderson had created a culture of breaching the air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.
The plane’s owner, 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 previous airspace infringements.
Despite this, Henderson allowed Mr Ibbotson to continue flying, and his message to the pilot read: "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 the permit needed to fly passengers in the American plane, or an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which was also required.
Mr Goudie accused Henderson of lying in his statements to investigators, and of running a "cowboy outfit" after questioning him about failings to keep basic information on his pilots.
In his closing speech, he claimed Henderson ran an "incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organisation.”
However, Stephen Spence QC, defending, had said Henderson’s actions were "purely a paperwork issue" and had not led to a likelihood of danger.
He said Henderson knew Mr Ibbotson, who had been flying for decades, was an experienced pilot.
Mr Spence 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, rather than 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.
After the verdict, a Sala family statement said: "Mr Henderson's convictions are welcome and we hope the CAA will ensure that illegal flights of this kind are stopped. David Henderson’s actions 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 be properly established only at Emiliano's inquest in February next year."
The statement added that the Sala family "fervently hope" all involved in the inquest, including Piper Aircraft Inc and the AAIB, would provide full disclosure of material.
The statement added: "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."
The UK CAA's general counsel, Kate Staples, said: "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."
Chairman of the Air Charter Association (ACA), Kevin Ducksbury, the said the trade body was "deeply dismayed" that "so many fundamental safety rules, and basic rules of airmanship were disregarded and broken" in this case.
He added: "The ruling confirms that Mr Henderson arranged and coordinated this flight illegally.”