he man who organised the doomed flight carrying footballer Emiliano Sala ahead of his multimillion pound Premier League transfer cut corners for financial reasons by hiring an unqualified pilot to fly the plane, a court heard.
The plane carrying 28-year-old Sala crashed into the English Channel in January 2019, killing the footballer and the pilot David Ibbotson 59.
The aircraft operator, David Henderson, 67, was unable to fly the plane himself because he was away with his wife in Paris.
Instead, he hired Mr Ibbotson, who did not hold a commercial pilot’s licence, was not allowed to fly at night, and whose rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
Henderson is on trial at Cardiff Crown Court accused of endangering the safety of an aircraft in a prosecution brought by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Jurors heard that hours after the night-time crash, Henderson messaged several people telling them to “keep quiet” and suggesting the incident would open up a “whole can of worms”.
Martin Goudie QC, prosecuting, told the court the case involved two flights, one from Cardiff to Nantes on January 19 and a return flight to the Welsh capital on January 21.
“These flights were not operated and organised out of Mr Henderson’s love for Mr Sala or Cardiff City FC,” he said.
“They were organised because it was in his financial interest, he was to receive valuable consideration, a phrase we will come back to, in return for organising and operating these flights.”
The body of the Argentina striker was recovered from the seabed the following month, but neither the body of Mr Ibbotson, from Crowle, Lincolnshire, nor the plane’s wreckage, was recovered.
Mr Goudie went on: “Mr Ibbotson did not have a commercial pilot’s licence, his rating for the type of aircraft had expired in November 2018 and he was not competent to fly in the weather that Mr Henderson was aware the flights might encounter.
“It is the prosecution case that in organising and operating passenger flights for valuable consideration when the aircraft was not authorised for such flights, and in using a pilot who was neither qualified nor competent to complete the flights, that Mr Henderson acted either negligently or recklessly in a manner that was likely to endanger the aircraft and those on it by creating a real risk that ought not to be ignored.
“We do not seek to suggest that Mr Henderson did not know what he was doing or care about safety – you will see a lot of maintenance took place on the aircraft – but that he ignored certain requirements when it suited him and his business interests.”
After concerns were raised about Mr Ibbotson’s competency, Henderson told him: “I have always said the flying we do is challenging and everyone has to be on the ball. It is a steep learning curve for someone new to the operation.
“The prerequisite is a willingness to listen and learn. 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.”
The court heard Henderson arranged the flights having been contacted on January 18 by Willie McKay who was involved in the transfer of Mr Sala to Cardiff City.
The defendant was concerned about the possibility of poor weather and asked Mr Ibbotson whether he could “blag” flying on his instruments.
After learning of the crash on the evening of January 21, Henderson sent a message to an aircraft engineer telling him “Don’t say a word to anyone”.
The following day, Henderson messaged Hedley Aylott, who had raised concerns about Mr Ibbotson’s flying in 2018, and said: “Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP pax! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry.”
Mr Goudie said that in June 2020, Henderson answered in writing questions put to him by investigators from the Civil Aviation Authority, in which he lied about his knowledge of Mr Ibbotson’s qualifications and suggested he was the operator of the aircraft.
“Again another lie – not a lie in the hours after the crash when he was in a state of shock, not a lie when he was in a police interview under pressure, but a lie in a written answer 18 months after the crash,” he added.
Henderson, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, denies a single charge of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
He has previously pleaded guilty to attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.