Emiliano Sala: Man who organised footballer’s fatal flight goes on trial

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A man accused of organising the flight which carried footballer Emiliano Sala, who died when the plane crashed in the English Channel in 2019, goes on trial on Monday in Cardiff.

David Henderson, 66, is accused of acting in a reckless or negligent manner that could have endangered the plane.

The small private plane aboard carrying the 28-year-old Argentinian player and pilot David Ibbotson crashed on January 21, 2019. The FC Nantes striker was on his way from the French city to join Cardiff City, in a €17 million transfer.

Sala’s death moved the whole football world. His body was found in the plane’s wreckage, more than two weeks after the accident, at a depth of 67 metres. The body of the 59-year-old pilot has not been found.

In its final report published in March 2020, the UK Aviation Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) estimated that the pilot lost control of the aircraft — a Piper PA-46 Malibu — during a manoeuvre performed at too high a speed, “probably” intended to avoid bad weather.

Investigators also believe that the pilot was “probably” poisoned with carbon monoxide from the engine’s exhaust system.

They also pointed out that the flight took place under conditions that did not comply with rules governing commercial flights. The pilot sailed by sight, at night, in difficult weather conditions, and did not have the licence to pilot this type of plane or to fly at night, they said.

The plane crashed at a speed of 270 miles per hour (435 km/h) at the moment of impact, according to the AAIB, excluding any hope of survival.

The flight was chartered by the British pilot David Henderson, at the request of the intermediary Willie McKay and his son Mark, the agent mandated by Nantes to carry out Sala’s transfer.

The Welsh club claimed to have offered a commercial flight to the player, who declined. Before taking the small private plane, Emiliano Sala was worried about the aircraft’s condition.

“I’m on the plane, it looks like it’s going to fall apart, and I’m leaving for Cardiff,” Emiliano Sala said in a voicemail message sent to relatives via WhatsApp. “I’m scared!” he confided.

Henderson pleaded not guilty to breaches of air navigation law in a previous appearance before a Cardiff court in October 2020. The man from East Yorkshire in northern England was released on bail pending trial.

Sala’s remains were repatriated to Argentina in February 2019. Parents, friends, and representatives from Cardiff, Nantes, and Bordeaux — the club that formed him — were among hundreds who came to pay tribute in Progreso, the village where he grew up.

In France, the tributes also poured in after the player’s disappearance.

Vahid Halilhodzic, then coach of FC Nantes, said about Sala that he had “rarely seen someone so endearing, humble, modest. But on the ground, he was a warrior”.

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