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Pilot in Emiliano Sala crash was 'not licensed' as report finds plane broke up mid-air

Credit: PA

A report into the plane crash that killed footballer Emiliano Sala has found pilot David Ibbotson was "not licensed" to fly the aircraft at the time of the accident.

The report from the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) said Ibbotson lost control of the Piper Malibu aircraft, which broke up mid-flight during a high speed manoeuvre.

Ibbotson is likely to have been affected by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning during the flight.

The report found Ibbotson was wrongly authorised to fly aircraft at night but there was no evidence found of completing night flying training.

It was also revealed he was paid a fee for the flight despite only having a private pilot licence which did not permit him to be paid.

Credit: Family photo

Leading up to the accident Ibbotson attempted a manoeuvre at an airspeed “significantly in excess of its design manoeuvring speed.” It’s thought he did so to avoid poor weather conditions which would have affected visibility.

The report said the loss of control was made more likely as Ibbotson was operating the aircraft at night in poor weather conditions despite having no training in night flying.

Credit: PA

Sala and Ibbotson were flying from Nantes in France to Cardiff after signing for Cardiff City, when the Piper Malibu aircraft crashed into the English Channel on January 21 2019.

The wreckage of the Piper Malibu was found on the seabed after an underwater search. Credit: AAIB

The Argentinian striker's body was recovered but Ibbotson has not been found.

A previous toxicology report found Sala had been exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide in the cockpit when the plane crashed.

The final report from the AAIB found there was no CO detector on the aircraft and that inspection of the exhaust systems could not rule out the risk of poisoning.

The Piper Malibu N264DB aircraft before take off. Credit: PA

This was a tragic accident with fatal consequences. As we publish our final report today, our thoughts are with the families of Mr Sala and Mr Ibbotson.

A team of highly experienced investigators has been working to examine all aspects of the flight in order to understand the factors which may have caused or contributed to the accident. Today we have made important safety recommendations which, if fully implemented, would significantly reduce the risk of a recurrence.

Routine maintenance is vital but cannot eliminate the risk of carbon monoxide leaks completely. Equipping aircraft with devices that provide warning of the presence of this odourless, colourless and lethal gas, would enable pilots to take potentially lifesaving action. We are therefore calling for the regulators to make it mandatory for piston engine aircraft, such as the one involved in this accident, to carry an active CO warning device.

The chartering of aircraft that are not licensed for commercial transport – so called ‘grey charters’ – is putting lives at risk. We welcome the Civil Aviation Authority’s efforts to stop this practice through their ‘Legal to Fly’ campaign and other interventions.

– Crispin Orr, Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Air Accidents Investigation Branch

The AAIB investigation identified the following as causal factors that led to the plane crash:

  • The pilot lost control of the aircraft during a manually-flown turn, which was probably initiated to remain in or regain Visual Meteorological Conditions.
  • The Aircraft subsequently suffered an in-flight break-up while manoeuvring at an airspeed significantly in excess of its designs manoeuvring speed.
  • The pilot was probably affected by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

The also identified the several contributory factors:

  • A loss of control was made more likely because the flight was not conducted in accordance with safety standards applicable to commercial operations. This manifested itself in the flight being operated under Visual Flight rules (VFR) at night in poor weather conditions despite the pilot having no training in night flying and a lack of recent practice instrument training.
  • In service inspections of exhaust systems do not eliminate the risk of CO poisoning.
  • There was no CO detector with an active warning in the aircraft which might have alerted the pilot to the presence of CO in time for him to take mitigating action.
Cardiff City fans mourned the death of Emiliano Sala despite him never playing for the club. Credit: PA

Cardiff City continues to be locked in a legal dispute with Nantes over payment of the footballer's £15 million transfer fee.

The Bluebirds argue they were not liable for the full amount because Sala was not officially a player when he died.

Cardiff City recently urged French authorities to launch an official investigation into Sala's death.

Cardiff City said they welcome the findings of the AAIB report.

It is a detailed and technical piece of work which, whilst apportioning no blame or liability, raises a number of new questions which we hope will be addressed during the inquest recommencing next week.

The report also highlights a number of challenges the regulating bodies face in stopping illegal grey charter flights, the widespread use of which in the football industry and more widely is placing countless lives at risk.

We are encouraged to read that the CAA is determined to tackle illegal activities by pursuing those involved, it is a practise which must be stopped and we hope the industry will be supported in order to prevent this tragedy ever happening again.

– Cardiff City statement