UK CAA Prosecutes Pilot for Alleged Illegal Charter Flight

 - October 16, 2020, 6:35 AM
The UK CAA is prosecuting British pilot David Henderson over his alleged role in the crash of a Piper Malibu (pictured here) that killed soccer player Emiliano Sala and private pilot David Ibbotson. (Photo: screenshot from BBC video)

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has begun a criminal prosecution against David Henderson, who it alleges was involved in arranging the January 2019 flight in which a Piper Malibu crashed en route between Nantes, France, and Cardiff, UK, killing soccer player Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson. The CAA is pressing charges under the Air Navigation Order, relating to allegations that the flight constituted an illegal commercial operation and also that Henderson “acted in a reckless/negligent manner likely to endanger” the U.S.-registered aircraft.

Henderson is due to appear in Cardiff Crown Court on October 26, having already appeared in a magistrates’ court where he denied the charges. The criminal prosecution will delay the full inquest into the deaths of the two men, and this is now not expected to be completed until 2022.

On March 13, the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) published its report on the Jan. 21, 2019 accident. It concluded that Ibbotson, who held EASA and FAA private pilot licenses, had lost control of the aircraft as it crossed the English Channel in poor weather conditions at night. “Neither the pilot nor the aircraft had the required licenses or permissions to operate commercially,” said the AAIB investigators.

While Ibbotson had a restricted CAA instrument rating, he was not rated for night flights and he did not hold a commercial license required for charter operations. Carbon monoxide poisoning was cited as a “probable” contributory factor in the fatal crash that killed both Ibbotson and Sala.

According to FlightAware, the U.S.-registered Piper Malibu PA-46-310P (N264DB) was owned by UK company Southern Aircraft Consultancy Inc Trustee Norfolk. From UK corporate registration records, there is no clear connection between this company and David Henderson, and no connection was mentioned in the CAA’s statement on the prosecution. The aircraft was imported to the UK from the U.S. in 2011 when it was acquired by Southern Aircraft Consultancy.

Multiple media reports in the UK claim that Henderson was initially booked to pilot the aircraft for the flight carrying Sala to Cardiff, where he was due to join a new soccer team. The reports claim that Henderson received money for the flight, but subsequently asked Ibbotson to be the pilot. Henderson has not made any public statements on the case.

The aircraft charter industry has long complained that authorities have taken insufficient action to prevent illegal commercial flights or so-called gray charter. In this regard, the CAA prosecution will be watched closely as possible evidence of a more aggressive approach to breaches of existing aviation legislation.

“We welcome news of the charges that have been made around the aircraft crash, which claimed the lives of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson,” said Air Charter Association CEO Dave Edwards in a written statement. “However, as this case is still active, it would be inappropriate to comment further. We shall, though, be following this case with considerable interest.”

During recent initial hearings of the inquest, Keith Moreton, an attorney representing the CAA, said that the agency had issued two summonses against Henderson on Sept. 9, 2020. “One, endangering aircraft, relates to two flights including the return flight on January 21, 2019, that ended in the accident. A separate offense relates to the licensing of that particular flight on January 21,” he stated.

In 2015, Henderson appeared in a BBC documentary about ferry pilots.