The businessman who organised the flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala has been found guilty of endangering the safety of the aircraft.
David Henderson (67) was convicted by a majority verdict of 10 to two over the death of the player by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court yesterday.
The plane carrying 28-year-old Sala crashed into the English Channel on the evening of January 21, 2019, killing the striker and pilot David Ibbotson (59).
It took the jury of seven men and five women seven-and-a-half hours to convict Henderson, the aircraft operator, who the trial heard had arranged the flight with football agent William ‘Willie’ McKay.
He had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane as he was away on holiday with his wife in Paris.
Mr Ibbotson, who regularly flew for him, 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.
The jury heard how only 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 said 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 it 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.
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”.
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.
He said Mr Ibbotson, as pilot of that flight, had been in charge of ensuring their safe passage. He said the difference between a commercial licence and the private licence held by Mr Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, and it was 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, of Hotham, Yorkshire, had already admitted a separate offence of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.
Judge Mr Justice Foxton granted Henderson bail to return to be sentenced for both offences on November 12.
He faces maximum sentences of five years’ imprisonment for endangering the aircraft and two years for the lesser charge.