UK Court Convicts Organizer of Illegal Charter Flight

 - October 28, 2021, 10:02 AM
The U.S.-registered Piper Malibu used for an illegal charter to fly soccer star Emiliano Sala to the UK in January 2019 was not operated by a company holding an air operator certificate and its pilot did not hold a commercial license.

A jury at Cardiff Crown Court in the UK has found David Henderson guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft for his role in arranging the flight in which soccer star Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson died when an illegally chartered Piper Malibu crashed into the ocean on a flight from France to Wales in January 2019. Henderson, who effectively managed the aircraft for its private owner, was also found guilty of “attempting to discharge a passenger in the UK without valid permission or authorization." He will be sentenced on November 12.

The Air Charter Association (ACA), which has been campaigning for tougher enforcement against people and companies making illegal flights for-hire, welcomed the verdict. “The ruling confirms that Henderson arranged and coordinated this flight illegally on behalf of Emiliano Sala,” said the UK-based group’s chairman, Kevin Ducksbury. “Fully licensed, regulated, and approved air charter operators are at the heart of the Air Charter Association’s core values and growing membership. The association is profoundly disturbed that this flight was allowed to happen but welcomes the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s representation in this case, ensuring a precedence is set and further support is provided to one of the association’s primary causes—stamping out illegal public transport.”

Prosecutors told the jury that Ibbotson, who regularly flew for Henderson, did not hold a commercial pilot’s license and was not qualified to fly in IFR conditions at night. His specific rating for the single-engine Malibu had expired.

The N-registered aircraft was owned by Fay Keely, who the court heard had refused to allow Ibbotson to fly her. Henderson’s company does not hold an air operator’s certificate. Prosecutors told the jury that, after hearing about the crash, Henderson, a former RAF officer, texted associates instructing them not to speak about the circumstances around the flight out of concern that it would, “open a can of worms.”

Commenting on the verdict, Kate Staples, the UK CAA’s general counsel issued the following statement: “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.”