Coroner will write to the Government over Emiliano Sala’s illegal ‘grey’ flight

The Argentinian footballer, who had just joined Cardiff City, was passenger in a plane that crashed into the English Channel in 2019.

17 March 2022

A coroner will be writing to the Government and the sports industry with her concerns about illegal “grey” passenger flights following the death of footballer Emiliano Sala.

Rachael Griffin, the senior coroner for Dorset, said she is so concerned about the flights – private charters carrying paying passengers – that she has a duty to alert the authorities.

Sala was passenger on an aircraft operated by a businessman who did not have a commercial licence and was using an unqualified pilot.

Mrs Griffin said she will be writing to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, questioning whether the Civil Aviation Authority has enough power to investigate illegal flights.

Tributes were left to the footballer outside Cardiff City's stadium after he died (Aaron Chown/PA)
Tributes were left to Emiliano Sala outside Cardiff City’s stadium (Aaron Chown/PA)

She said she will also be urging various sport and business organisations to warn its members of the dangerous flights.

Sala, 28, was on board the Piper Malibu flying from Nantes to Cardiff on the evening of January 21 2019 when it crashed in the English Channel close to Guernsey, also killing pilot David Ibbotson, 59, whose body has never been found.

The Argentinian striker died from head and chest injuries but was already deeply unconscious – having been poisoned by fumes from the plane’s faulty exhaust system, an inquest jury found.

In its conclusion, the jury said: “Emiliano Sala died as a consequence of injuries sustained in an aircraft crash where the flight was operated as a commercial flight without the required authorisation, certifications or permissions being in place.”

Sala was joining then Premier League club Cardiff City in a £15 million transfer, which involved football agent Willie McKay, from French Ligue 1 side Nantes.

Pilot and businessman David Henderson, 67, managed the single-engine aircraft on behalf of its owner and arranged flights, pilots and maintenance, despite not being the legally registered operator.

Businessman David Henderson was jailed for his role in organising the flight in which Emiliano Sala died (Jacob King/PA)
Businessman David Henderson was jailed for his role in organising the flight in which Emiliano Sala died (Jacob King/PA)

Mr McKay, who was helping his son Mark’s firm represent Nantes in the transfer, was a long-term client.

Mr McKay arranged the flights and said he wanted to help Sala get back to Nantes to say goodbye to his teammates, claiming Cardiff City “abandoned” him.

He denied knowingly arranging illegal “grey” flights with Mr Henderson, who did not have an air operator’s certificate (AOC) allowing him to fly paying passengers.

As well as not having an AOC, Mr Henderson kept no records or invoices for his business, or the qualifications of the pilots who flew for him.

Mr Ibbotson had reported to Mr Henderson that he heard a loud bang on the outward flight from Cardiff to Nantes – but an engineer was never asked to investigate when the plane landed in France.

He had been banned from flying the Piper Malibu by its owner following two airspace infringements months earlier, but Mr Henderson allowed him to continue.

Mr Ibbotson held a private pilot’s licence, which did not permit him to fly passengers commercially, was not allowed to fly at night, and his rating for the Piper Malibu had expired.

Well-known football agent Willie McKay gave evidence at the inquest as he was involved in the transfer of Emiliano Sala to Cardiff City (Steve Parsons/PA)
Football agent Willie McKay gave evidence at the inquest as he was involved in the transfer of Emiliano Sala to Cardiff City (Steve Parsons/PA)

Last year, Mr Henderson was jailed for 18 months after being convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft by using Mr Ibbotson’s services when he knew he did not have the relevant licences.

He admitted a further offence of trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation.

The jury heard evidence over four weeks, including from engineering experts, Cardiff City, and Nantes.

In the record of inquisition, it said: “The organiser of this flight chartered the aircraft from an unlicensed operator. This flight was a commercial flight operating without the correct certification and relevant permissions.

“The operator hired the pilot who did not have a commercial pilot’s license, no night rating, and his rating to fly a single engine piston aircraft had expired. He had limited experience in flying instrument meteorological conditions.

“The pilot likely felt under pressure to keep the flight for a highly valued customer.

“The pilot lost control of the aircraft during a manually flown turn, which was probably initiated to remain in or regain visual meteorological conditions.

“The pilot was likely to be affected by carbon monoxide poisoning. This was caused by a failure in the aircraft exhaust system.”

Daniel Machover, of Hickman & Rose solicitors, which represented the Sala family, said: “This inquest has exposed the complex facts leading to Emiliano’s untimely death.

“It has shone a bright light on many of the missed opportunities in the worlds of football and aviation to prevent his tragic death.

“The family also welcome the coroner’s decision to communicate to the relevant authorities her concerns about the safety issues arising from this inquest in order to prevent similar future deaths.”

In a statement, Cardiff City FC said: “We are pleased that the truth has been firmly established in a court of law, particularly the facts surrounding the organisation of the illegal flight.”

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