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Emiliano Sala: Pilot told friend the plane was ‘dishonest’ before the player’s fatal flight

The pilot of a plane in which football player Emiliano Sala died described the aircraft as “clumsy” and promised to wear his life jacket before the fatal flight.

An inquiry in March found that the Argentine-born striker died of head and chest injuries but was deeply unconscious, having been poisoned by smoke from the Piper Malibu’s faulty exhaust system, on the night of January 21, 2019.

The 28-year-old was flying from Nantes, France to Wales to join then Premier League club Cardiff City when the plane crashed into the English Channel near Guernsey, also killing pilot David Ibbotson, of 59 years.

Newly released audio from the BBC’s Transfer: The Emiliano Sala Story podcast shows that Ibbotson appeared to be worried about the plane after the outbound flight from Cardiff to Nantes.

“I took a football player from Cardiff. He was just bought from Nantes for, I think, around £20 million or something,” he said in a voicemail to friend Kevin Jones.

“They trusted me to pick him up on a rogue aircraft.

“I usually have my life vest between my seats, but tomorrow I’ll be wearing my life vest for sure,” he added.

This aircraft has to go back to the hangar

David Ibbotson

Ibbotson, whose body was never found, was just an amateur pilot and was not allowed to carry passengers or fly at night.

He told Jones before departing Nantes that he heard “a bang” during the outbound flight.

“I’m in the middle of the Channel and ‘bang’”, said the pilot in the recording.

“I’m flying and then boom. I thought, ‘What’s wrong?’ So I presented everything and checked my parameters, everything was fine and it was still flying, but it caught his eye.”

He said, “That Malibu, occasionally you get like a mist every now and then. You can feel it, very, very low through the entire structure of the aircraft.”

David Henderson was jailed last year for 18 months (Jacob King/PA)

(PA file)

“This aircraft has to go back to the hangar,” Jones added, after realizing that the plane’s left brake pedal was not working when it landed at Nantes Atlantique airport.

Pilot and entrepreneur David Henderson, 67, managed the single-engine aircraft on behalf of its owner and organized flights, pilots and maintenance, despite not being the legally registered operator.

Football agent Willie McKay, who was helping his son Mark’s company represent Nantes in the transfer, was a longtime customer.

McKay arranged the flights and said he wanted to help Sala return to Nantes to say goodbye to his teammates, claiming Cardiff City had “abandoned” him.

He denied knowingly arranging illegal “gray” flights with Henderson, who did not have an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) that would allow him to carry paying passengers.

In addition to not having a COA, Henderson kept no records or invoices for his business or the qualifications of the pilots who flew for him.

Ibbotson also reported the clash between Cardiff and Nantes to Henderson – but an engineer was never asked to investigate when the plane landed in France.

He had been banned from flying the Piper Malibu by its owner after two airspace violations months earlier, but Henderson allowed him to continue.

Last year, Henderson was jailed for 18 months after being convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft by using Ibbotson’s services when he knew he didn’t have the relevant licenses.

He admitted to yet another offense of trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorization.

Following the discovery of the March inquiry, a coroner vowed to write to the government and the sports industry with his concerns about illegal “gray” passenger flights.

Rachael Griffin, a senior coroner in Dorset, said she was so concerned about private charters carrying paying passengers that she had a duty to alert authorities and question whether the Civil Aviation Authority had enough power to investigate illegal flights.

Last month, Cardiff was ordered to pay the first installment of Sala’s transfer fee after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled the deal was concluded before his death.

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