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An aircraft operator has received an 18-month jail sentence for his role in the death of footballer Emiliano Sala, who died in a plane crash over the English channel shortly after joining then-Premier League side Cardiff City.

Sala, who was 28, and pilot David Ibbotson died in the January 2019 accident when the small passenger plan in which they were travelling went down as the Argentine forward was en route to the Welsh football club for his first training session with his new teammates in the days after he completed his transfer from French side Nantes.

David Henderson, 67, was convicted in October of endangering the safety of an aircraft at a trial in Cardiff Crown Court, while also pleading guilty to another charge of attempting to arrange a flight for a passenger without correct authorisation.

The former RAF officer, who was the operator of the aircraft along with football agent William McKay, had organized the ill-fated flight.

His wife was in tears in the courtroom as the judge handed down the term, with another three-month sentence for attempting to discharge a passenger to run concurrently.

“I have no doubt you were aware that aspects of your operations were unlawful,” said the judge ahead of sentencing.

“I am unable to accept your evidence that you were in any way reluctant to organize the flight for William McKay. 

“You were only too keen to assist Mr McKay, who was a client, and your thoughts soon turned to Mr Ibbotson, even though Mr Ibbotson did not have a licence that permitted him to fly passengers on a commercial basis.

“I’m sure you took close interest in the flights, sending numerous messages to Mr Ibbotson, and I’m sure those communications illustrated a lurking doubt in your mind about whether Mr Ibbotson was up to the job.”

Ibbotson, it was revealed, did not have a licence to fly at night. Sala had requested that the flght be moved to another time – and had expressed his concerns with the status of the flight and the plane in casual conversations with friends before and after take-off.

“I’m sure you did not raise this because you thought it would be damaging to your business. The only concern you raised was about an increase in cost,” the judge added.

“I accept the crash was a hugely distressing experience for you and has had a profound and lasting impact on you.

“Nonetheless, I’m sure in your statement to the CAA [UK Civil Aviation Authority] you made a number of dishonest statements in an attempt to distance yourself from events.

“In this case, you intentionally breached legislation, disregarded CAA regulations and did so on a premeditated basis and for profit. You were reckless and not merely negligent.”

It has been reported that Henderson has been profoundly affected by the crash and has since developed a heart condition, while his defense counsel also stated that the ensuing legal issues have proved extremely problematic for Henderson’s wife – stating that they both now face “financial ruin“.

“He feels very strongly that he has completely let her down. That is something he finds very, very hard to bear,” said Stephen Spence QC.

The trial heard that Henderson had attempted to contact several friends and figures close to him within the aviation industry in an attempt to conceal details of the accident.

“Ibbo has crashed the Malibu and killed himself and VIP! Bloody disaster. There will be an enquiry,” he wrote to one person.

“Questions may be asked about his flying.”

After the sentencing, Henderson paid his respects to the deceased through a formal statement from his legal team.

“Now that the case is concluded in the Crown Court, Mr Henderson wishes to formally pay his respects to the families of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson,” they said.

“It is important to point out that the Civil Aviation Authority have always accepted that the way in which the flight was arranged and operated did not cause the aircraft to crash.”

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