The aircraft operator who arranged the flight that killed football star Emiliano Sala has been convicted of endangering the safety of the aircraft.
David Henderson, 67, was found guilty by a majority verdict of 10–2 over the death of the player by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court on Oct. 28.
He is granted bail and is due to be sentenced on Nov. 12, facing a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment for endangering the aircraft and two years for attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation, to which he pleaded guilty on Oct. 18.
The solicitor representing Sala’s family said that while Henderson’s convictions are welcome, his involvement in Sala’s death is only “one piece in the puzzle.”
Sala died on the stormy evening of Jan. 21, 2019, after his flight crashed into the English Channel when carrying the 28-year-old Argentinian footballer from Nantes, France, to Cardiff, Wales. The pilot, 59-year-old David Ibbotson, died in the same incident.
Henderson organised the U.S.-registered single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft, which was not licensed to carry commercial passengers in the UK, as well as the pilot, who had never held a commercial pilot’s licence and his rating to fly this type of plane had been expired for two months.
Henderson had let Ibbotson fly the plane after the plane’s owner, Fay Keely, told him never to do so, since she had been contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about two airspace infringements Ibbotson had committed.
The jury heard how, just moments after finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent, warning it would “open a can of worms.”
The father-of-three and former RAF officer admitted in court that he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.
Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said Henderson had been “reckless or negligent” in the way he operated the plane, putting his business above the safety of passengers.
He also said Henderson had created a culture of breaching the air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.
Goudie accused Henderson of lying in his statements to investigators, and of running a “cowboy outfit” after questioning the defendant over why he failed to keep basic information on his pilots.
In his closing speech, he claimed Henderson ran an “incompetent, undocumented, and dishonest organisation.”
But Stephen Spence QC, defending, said his client’s actions were “purely a paperwork issue” and had not led to a likelihood of danger.
Spence told the court the only difference between a commercial licence and the private licence held by Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, and not about ability.
Daniel Machover, who represents Sala’s family, welcomed the convictions and said they hope “the CAA will ensure that illegal flights of this kind are stopped.”
Machover said other information regarding the deadly incident is still unknown, including “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 [Air Accidents Investigation Branch],” referring to a report by the AAIB saying the pilot had likely experienced carbon monoxide poisoning at the time of the crash.
He said the family “fervently hope” more details will be revealed in the inquest due to start in February 2022.
“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,” he said.
PA contributed to this report.