18 months behind bars for £4,000: Pilot is sentenced to jail for organising doomed flight that crashed and killed footballer Emiliano Sala

  • David Henderson was jailed this afternoon by a judge at Cardiff Crown Court
  • 67-year-old arranged private plane for footballer Emiliano Sala in January 2019 
  • Henderson’s texts showed he asked for £4,000 ‘as a float’ for the doomed flight
  • The aircraft fell into English Channel, killing Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, 59 

The businessman who organised the doomed flight that crashed and killed footballer Emiliano Sala was sentenced to 18 months in prison in court yesterday.

The 28-year-old striker and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died when the small plane they were flying in that was organised by David Henderson, 67, plunged into the English Channel in January 2019.

Henderson recruited Mr Ibbotson, even though he did not have a commercial pilot’s licence, could not fly at night, and had an expired rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft. In one text he asked Sala’s team to pay him £4,000 ‘as a float’. 

David Henderson, 67, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was a pilot himself but could not fly the plane – which he hired from someone else – because he was on holiday in Paris with his wife, Debbie. 

Sala was involved in a £15 million transfer to Cardiff City from Nantes FC, and was travelling between the two cities when he died.

Mr Justice Foxton sentenced Henderson to 18 months in prison for endangering an aircraft, with a three-month sentence, to run concurrently, for attempting to discharge a passenger.

David Henderson, 67, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was a pilot himself but could not fly the plane because he was on holiday in Paris with his wife, Debbie (they are pictured together outside court) 

Emiliano Sala, pictured, was onboard the chartered aircraft flown by Mr Ibbotson when it crashed into the English Channel while he was being transported from his former club Nantes to Cardiff, where he had just signed a multi-million-pound deal

Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson (pictured) disappeared when their plane vanished as it passed near Alderney

N264DB, on the ground at Nantes Airport, France, prior to the flight which crashed into the Channel killing footballer Emiliano Sala

The two seats were found on a beach near on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy

A map has been issued by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch showing the position where the wreckage of Sala’s plane was discovered 

Mr Justice Foxton ruled at the start of the hearing that the victim impact statement of Sala’s mother, Mercedes Taffarel, would not be read out in court after concerns were raised by Henderson’s defence about its contents.

‘My decision is not meant to diminish the devastating impact of the crash on Mrs Taffarel,’ Mr Justice Foxton said.

Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC had told the judge that Henderson was not ‘pressured’ into organising the flight by Mr McKay, and did so ‘for financial advantage’.

However, he said Henderson had no previous convictions and was of previous good character.

Stephen Spence QC, defending, told the judge his client did not necessarily profit from the flight and that pressure ‘could take many forms’.

Mr Spence said: ‘People speak very highly of him both as a person but, interestingly, as a pilot.’

But he said the crash and subsequent trial had damaged Henderson’s reputation, ridding him of his ‘life and livelihood’.

Henderson was said to have been affected physically and mentally by the crash and subsequent trial, and is now on beta blockers for a heart condition.

‘It has also had a knock-on effect on his wife, who has been in court throughout the proceedings and is in court today,’ Mr Spence said. 

Cardiff Crown Court heard David Ibbotson, right, had been banned from flying the aircraft by its owner Fay Keely had been notified by the Civil Aviation Authority that he had previously infringed two aviation rules while in the air

Football agent William ‘Willie’ McKay had a ‘preoccupation’ with securing a pilot to transport Sala between Cardiff and Nantes in France, the court previously heard

Sala’s body was recovered from the wreckage of the plane more than 22 miles off Guernsey in early February and carried to Portland in Dorset where the ghouls spied on his post-mortem in Bournemouth

The Piper Malibu carrying Sala from Nantes to Cardiff vanished over Alderney on January 21 and is feared to have plunged into one of the Channel’s most perilous areas, known as Hurd’s Deep

How Sala’s family welcomed Henderson’s conviction

The family of Emiliano Sala has welcomed the conviction of the man who organised the doomed flight leading to his death but they still have unanswered questions, their solicitor said.

Speaking after a jury at Cardiff Crown Court convicted David Henderson, Daniel Machover, of Hickman & Rose solicitors, said: ‘Mr Henderson’s convictions are welcome and we hope the CAA will ensure that illegal flights of this kind are stopped. 

‘The actions of David Henderson are only one piece in the puzzle of how the plane David Ibbotson was illegally flying came to crash into the sea on 21 January 2019.

‘We still do not know 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.

‘The answers to these questions can only be properly established at Emiliano’s inquest, which is due to start in February next year.

‘The Sala family fervently hope that everyone involved in the inquest will provide full disclosure of material without further delay, including Piper Aircraft Inc and the AAIB. This should ensure that the inquest can fulfil its function of fully and fearlessly examining the evidence so that all the facts emerge.

‘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.’


‘At his age and her age they were looking forward to a comfortable and modest retirement. Of course he now faces financial ruin.

‘He feels very strongly that he has completely let her down. That is something he finds very, very hard to bear.’

Mr Spence asked that any sentence be suspended.

During the trial the court heard how Henderson had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane, as he was away on holiday in Paris with his wife.

Mr Ibbotson, who flew regularly for Henderson, 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.

Neither did Henderson have an air operator certificate (AOC), which meant he was not legally allowed to take money for trips.

After finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of friends and colleagues telling them to stay silent, warning it would ‘open a can of worms’.

‘Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry,’ he texted one person.

In another message, he wrote: ‘Questions may be asked about his flying.’

The father-of-three and former RAF officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.

The jury were told he had failed to ring Mr Ibbotson’s wife, Nora, to which Henderson replied: ‘I had no number for her.’

Henderson was accused of running a ‘cowboy outfit’ more focused on profit than the safety of his passengers.

In a statement his lawyers said: ‘Now that the case is concluded in the Crown Court, Mr Henderson wishes to formally pay his respects to the families of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson.

‘It is important to point out that the Civil Aviation Authority have always accepted that the way in which the flight was arranged and operated did not cause the aircraft to crash.’

He said he would now be considering whether to appeal against the conviction and sentence.

Image issued by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the wreckage of the plane

The specialist FPV Morven ship, pictured in Guernsey, was being used in a privately funded search for the plane of missing footballer Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) Geo Ocean III moved in to assist the Morven when it discovered wreckage. Geo sent an ROV to visually identify the wreck on the seabed 

An inquest into Sala’s death is to be held next year.

Rob Bishton, group director of safety and airspace regulation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: ‘Our thoughts remain with the families and friends that were affected by this tragic accident in January 2019.

‘Illegal commercial flights represent a significant safety risk and that is reflected in the court’s decision today.

‘The aviation system relies on the integrity of all those involved. Anyone operating a commercial flight should always have the necessary licence and approvals in place. ‘

Timeline: How the Sala tragedy unfolded over the English Channel

January 21, 2019:

The single-turbine engine Piper PA-46 Malibu leaves Nantes at 7.15pm for Cardiff and is flying at an altitude of 5,000ft. At 8.50pm the plane disappears from radar in the English Channel.

January 22:

The French civil aviation authority confirms Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala, 28, who had just signed for Cardiff City, was on board the light aircraft. Piloting the plane was David Ibbotson, from Crowle, near Scunthorpe.

January 24:

Guernsey’s harbour master Captain David Barker says the chances Sala and Mr Ibbotson have survived is ‘extremely remote’.  

January 26:

It emerges that football agent Willie McKay arranged for the flight to take Sala to Cardiff but he says he had no involvement in selecting the plane or pilot. He also backs calls for the search to continue.

January 27:

Relatives and friends of Sala arrive in Guernsey, having enlisted the help of shipwreck hunting expert David Mearns. 

January 28:

Sala’s family, including his mother Mercedes and sister Romina, take a chartered flight in a plane operated by Guernsey airline Aurigny over the area where the plane disappeared.

January 30:

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) says two seat cushions found washed up earlier in the week near Surtainville on the Cotentin Peninsula are likely to have come from the plane carrying Sala and his pilot.

February 3:

Wreckage of the plane is located in a fresh, privately funded search which was made possible after a fundraising campaign saw more than £260,000 donated.

Feburary 4:

A body is visible in seabed video footage of the wreckage of the plane. The AAIB says the footage was filmed using an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) which was surveying the area after the plane was located.

February 6:

A body seen in the wreckage of the plane is recovered. The AAIB says the body will be taken to Portland to be passed over to the Dorset coroner for examination.

The aircraft remains 67 metres underwater 21 miles off the coast of Guernsey. The AAIB says attempts to recover the aircraft wreckage were unsuccessful and, due to continued poor weather forecast, ‘the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close’.

February 7:

The Geo Ocean III search boat returns to dock in Portland, Dorset, carrying the wreckage of the Piper Malibu aircraft. Investigators wait to confirm if the body inside the wreckage is that of the pilot or the Argentinian footballer – and identified him using his fingerprints.

June 5: 

Two people charged over a photograph taken in a mortuary of footballer Emiliano Sala that was posted on social media. 

June 19: 

David Henderson, from York, arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by an unlawful act. He was later released under investigation.

August 14:

An interim report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch reveals tests on Sala’s body have found enough evidence of carbon monoxide to cause a heart attack, seizure or unconsciousness

November 6:  A pre-inquest review heard that the wreckage of the plane in which footballer Emiliano Sala was killed in will not be recovered from the sea despite the wishes of the family to do otherwise.

March 11: Dorset Police confirm they will take no further action against David Henderson, the pilot arrested on suspicion of manslaughter in relation to the plane crash that killed footballer Emiliano Sala




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