A 67-year-old man was on Tuesday accused in a British court of being motivated by money for arranging a flight that killed Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala without the proper licences.
David Henderson is alleged to have organised the ill-fated flight, which crashed as Sala was travelling to join Cardiff City from French club Nantes.
The plane — a single-engine Piper Malibu — came down in the sea near the Channel Island of Guernsey, killing the 28-year-old striker, and the pilot, David Ibbotson, who was 59. Lawyer Martin Goudie told Cardiff Crown Court that the case involved two flights – one from Cardiff to Nantes on January 19 and a return flight on January 21, 2019.
“Mr Henderson, as the operator,… organised these flights for Emiliano Sala to be flown from Cardiff to France and back at a time when Cardiff City Football Club were in the process of signing (him),” he told a jury. “They were organised because it was in his financial interest.”
Henderson acted negligently or recklessly in organising flights “when the aircraft was not authorised for such flights and in using a pilot who was neither qualified nor competent to complete the flights,” he added, saying his actions were “likely to endanger” the aircraft. Henderson, from Hotham, in Yorkshire, northern England, denied one charge of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
The court was told on Monday he has admitted one count of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation. That charge typically concerns a business operator failing to acquire the appropriate licences to hire a plane commercially.
Goudie told the jury that Henderson had been due to pilot the plane transporting Sala, who become Cardiff’s record signing after a fee of £15 million was agreed with Nantes. But he was unavailable and arranged for Ibbotson to fly instead. “Mr Ibbotson did not have a commercial pilot’s licence, his rating for the type of aircraft N264DB had expired in November 2018 and he was not competent to fly in the weather that Mr Henderson was aware the flights might encounter,” he added.
After travelling to Cardiff to complete the deal, Sala returned to France to collect belongings and bid farewell to his Nantes teammates. It was on his return flight to the Welsh capital on January 21, to take part in his first training session, that the plane crashed. Initial searches for the player and pilot were suspended in the days after the single-engine plane went missing.
However, a crowd-funding effort supported by thousands of donations, including from football stars Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, helped launch a private search. That search saw Sala’s body recovered from the wreckage in February 2019, but Ibbotson’s body has not been found. Two months after Sala’s body was discovered, his father, Horacio Sala, died of a heart attack in Argentina.
British air accident investigators in March 2020 concluded that Ibbotson was not licensed to fly the plane or to fly at night and that he lost control and flew too fast as he tried to avoid bad weather. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch said both the pilot and Sala were affected by carbon monoxide poisoning before the crash.