A man who is accused over a plane crash that killed footballer Emiliano Sala did not act recklessly, and his involvement in the tragedy was “purely a paperwork issue”, his defence has claimed.
David Henderson, 67, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, is charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft after a plane carrying 28-year-old Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, crashed at 22 nautical miles north-north-west of Guernsey on the evening of January 21 2019.
Henderson, the operator of the plane – responsible for its maintenance and renting it out on behalf of the owner – had arranged the two flights between Nantes in France and Cardiff with football agent William “Willie” McKay, whose son Mark McKay was involved in the player’s multimillion-pound transfer deal to Cardiff City Football club.
The prosecution, led by Martin Goudie QC, claims Henderson acted “recklessly” as operator and put the flight that caused the death of the Argentinian striker at real risk.
This included the hiring of pilot David Ibbotson who he was aware did not hold a commercial pilot’s licence, was not allowed to fly at night, and whose rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
However, Stephen Spence QC, for the defence, argued his client’s oversights were “purely a paperwork issue” and that while Henderson had not followed regulations that in itself had not led to a real risk of danger.
Mr Ibbotson was an experienced pilot with more than 3,500 hours flying, and legally it was his responsibility to ensure a safe flight, Mr Spence told the jury at Cardiff Crown Court on Tuesday.
He also told the court the only difference between a commercial licence and a private licence is whether you can carry passengers for money or not, and not about ability.
The same, he claimed, was true of an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which Henderson does not have and means he was unauthorised to take cash for trips.
“If you’re a wealthy person you can buy your own jumbo jet and you can carry family, friends, staff and colleagues, providing they are not paying customers. You can do that without an Air Operator Certificate,” Mr Spence said.
“It’s legal and it must be safe for you to carry a passenger – if it wasn’t, the regulator would legislate against it.
“While the AOC is a magic piece of paper that allows you to charge people, it has very little to do with danger or no danger.
“To quote Orwell, it’s not a case of AOC good, no AOC bad.”
He added of the prosecution: “My learned friend said this is all down to Mr Henderson as the operator. No. Because it’s a matter of law that the responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight is vested with the pilot.”
He implored the jury to treat his client fairly, and said: “He’s 67 years old, a family man, father, grandfather, married over 30 years, former RAF officer, businessman, pilot with over 11,000 flying hours. In many respects, he is like any one of you.”
In his closing speech, Mr Goudie told the jury: “The most basic checks did not take place. There was no paperwork, not even that of next of kin details.
“And, of course there are no records, because there wouldn’t be if you knew the pilot you were hiring was not qualified.
“What he did here was not an accident. What he did here, we say, was deliberate and reckless.”
He added: “This was an incompetent, undocumented, risk-creating and dishonest organisation.”