Agent 'would have gone ahead' with Sala flight even if he knew pilot was unqualified, court hears

Emiliano Sala Credit: PA

A football agent involved in arranging the flight which crashed into the sea, killing Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala, would have pressed ahead with the journey even if he had known the pilot flying was unqualified, a court has heard.

Plane operator David Henderson, 67, who is on trial at Cardiff Crown Court over endangering the safety of an aircraft, claimed the agent William "Willie" McKay had a "preoccupation" with securing a pilot to transport Sala between Cardiff and Nantes in France.

The 28-year-old footballer and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died when the private plane they were flying in fell into the English Channel in January 2019.

Plane operator David Henderson, 67, is on trial at Cardiff Crown Court over endangering the safety of an aircraft, Credit: PA

Sala was involved in a multimillion-pound transfer deal to Cardiff City FC from Nantes FC at the time and was travelling between the two clubs at the time of his death.

The jury has heard previously that Willie McKay and Henderson had a working relationship, and Mr McKay got in contact with him to hire the plane.

Henderson, a pilot himself, was unavailable to fly the plane as he was on holiday in Paris with his wife.

Mr Ibbotson, who Henderson hired instead, did not hold a commercial pilot's licence, was not allowed to fly at night, and had an expired rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft.

Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson

During the hearing on Monday, Stephen Spence, for the defence, asked his client if he thought Mr McKay would have cared had Henderson told him about Mr Ibbotson's lack of qualifications.

Henderson said: "His preoccupation was to get where he wanted to go. I don't know if he wouldn't have cared, but as I say, his preoccupation was to get a pilot.

"I think he would have gone ahead with the flight anyway."

On Friday, the prosecution, led by Martin Goudie QC, had asked Henderson whether he thought Mr McKay and Sala had a right to know if the pilot flying the plane was qualified or not.

And he accused Henderson of running a "cowboy outfit" after he admitted not keeping basic information on the pilots he employed.

The prosecutor alleged Henderson had been "reckless and negligent" in allowing Mr Ibbotson to fly, but Henderson claims he trusted Mr Ibbotson not to fly if he lacked certification.

Messages found by the police on Henderson's phone read to jury throughout the trial show he contacted a number of people following the crash telling them to "keep quiet", warning it would "open a can of worms", and that there could be an inquiry.

Mr Goudie asked the defendant: "Isn't the true situation that you didn't want anyone looking at how you were running these flights because you knew you were running them illegally?"

Henderson replied: "There's probably some element of that, yes."

The defendant is said to have been the plane's operator because he was in charge of its maintenance and hiring out to clients for the aircraft's owner, Fay Keely.

He has already pleaded guilty to another charge of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.

The trial continues.