A pilot who arranged a flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala has been found guilty of an aviation offence that could see him sent to prison.
The small plane carrying 28-year-old Sala crashed into the English Channel off the coast of Guernsey on a stormy evening in January 2019, during a trip from his French club in Nantes to Cardiff City, who had signed him in a multimillion-pound transfer deal.
The Argentinian striker and the pilot David Ibbotson, 59, both died in the incident.
The aircraft operator, David Henderson, 67, arranged the flight with former football agent William “Willie” McKay but was unable to fly the plane himself because he was away with his wife in Paris.
Instead, he asked Mr Ibbotson, who regularly flew for him despite not holding a commercial pilot’s licence or a qualification to fly at night, and whose rating to fly the American aircraft, a single-engine Piper Malibu, had expired.
The jury heard how moments after he found out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent.
Henderson admitted in court he feared an investigation into his business arrangements.
He was on trial at Cardiff Crown Court accused of endangering the safety of an aircraft in a prosecution brought by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Henderson has already pleaded guilty to a separate offence of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.
Judge Mr Justice Foxton will sentence Henderson on Nov 12, but according to the CAA website, the sentence for endangering the safety of an aircraft is up to five years in prison.
Kate Staples, General Counsel at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: “Our thoughts remain with the families and friends that were affected by this accident in January 2019.
“Aviation safety relies upon the integrity of everyone involved in the industry.
“Unlawful and unsafe activity such as Mr Henderson’s is unacceptable and the UK Civil Aviation Authority will always look to prosecute illegal activity.”
It took the jury of seven men and five women seven and a half hours to convict Henderson.
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 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 by using an authorised plane and hiring pilots neither qualified nor competent to complete the flights.
Mr Goudie said Henderson had created a culture of breaching the air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.
The owner of the plane Fay Keely had told Henderson not to allow Mr Ibbotson to pilot the plane again after being contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about two airspace infringements he had committed.
Despite this Henderson allowed Mr Ibbotson to continue flying, and in a message to the pilot said: “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.”
Henderson did not have a Foreign Carrier Permit (FCP) which was needed to fly passengers in the American plane, or an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which he was required to obtain.
And during the trial Mr 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.
He said his client knew Mr Ibbotson, who had been flying for decades and had accumulated around 3,500 flying miles, was an experienced pilot.
And that Mr Ibbotson, as pilot of that flight, had been in charge of ensuring their safe passage home.
He told the court the only difference between a commercial licence and the private licence held by Mr Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, and not about ability.
Henderson also argued on the stand that he had phoned Ms Keely after she forbade Mr Ibbotson from flying and convinced her to let him pilot again.
Ms Keely said she does not remember such a call.
Henderson faces maximum sentences of five years imprisonment for endangering the aircraft and two years for the lesser charge.