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A former RAF officer who organised the flight in which the footballer Emiliano Sala was killed has been jailed for 18 months.
David Henderson, 67, who was accused in court of running a “cowboy outfit”, showed little emotion as the judge, Mr Justice Foxton, told him he had put profit before safety.
Foxton said Henderson had been keen to assist an “important client”, the football agent, Willie McKay and he arranged for pilot David Ibbotson to fly Sala, 28, even though his licence did not allow him to carry passengers in commercial flights.
The judge said: “You sent numerous messages to Mr Ibbotson; I’m sure these messages illustrate a lurking doubt as to whether he was fully up to the job.”
He told Henderson he had a “cavalier” attitude to organising the flight, adding: “Air safety regulations and systems … are written in blood.”
The judge said Henderson was guilty of a “flagrant breach” of safety regulations for profit. He continued: “I am sure aspects of your operation were unlawful and you took steps to keep them off the radar as far as the CAA [the UK Civil Aviation Authority] were involved.
“This was illustrated by your message to Mr Ibbotson, which read: ‘We both have the opportunity to make money out of the business model but not if we upset clients or draw the attention of the CAA’. You were reckless rather than merely negligent by disregarding the regulations.”
The Argentinian striker Sala was being flown from Nantes in France to the Welsh capital to join his new club, Cardiff City, on the evening of 21 January 2019 when the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft plunged into the Channel north of Guernsey in bad weather. His body was recovered from the seabed 68 metres down. The body of Ibbotson, from Lincolnshire, has not been found.
Jurors heard that McKay had asked Henderson to arrange the flight. Henderson could not fly Sala himself as he was in Paris with his wife so he asked Ibbotson to do it.
But Ibbotson 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, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft by a jury at Cardiff crown court.
During the trial, prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said Henderson had created a culture of breaching air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired and ran a “cowboy outfit”.
At the sentencing hearing Goudie claimed Henderson cut costs “at the expense of safety.” Henderson alleged in the witness box that McKay could be “insistent” but Goudie rejected the idea that Henderson felt “pressured” into organising the flight.
Stephen Spence QC, defending, said flying had been Henderson’s passion and livelihood, and the since the crash and prosecution he had suffered mental health difficulties and heart problems.
A report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) concluded Ibbotson was probably suffering from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning when the accident happened, possibly caused by a fault in the exhaust tailpipe that allowed gas to enter the cabin through the heating system.
Outside court, Henderson’s lawyer, Andrew Shanahan, said his legal team would consider an appeal.
The Air Charter Association, the global trade association for the charter industry, warned that illegal flights were still taking place every day.
Chairman Kevin Ducksbury said: “We hope the guilty verdict and the sentence issued will set a precedent for those involved in illegal air charter operations. There is still work to be done to ensure that illegal charter is fully eradicated from our industry. Whilst instances like this case, with tragic and fatal consequences, are rare, there are still illegal charters being operated globally every day.”