Report on Sala death concludes pilot, plane unqualified to fly

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The Air Accidents Investigation Branch published its year-long investigation into the crash that killed footballer Emiliano Sala in January of 2019.

In the report, the Branch determined that the pilot, David Ibbotson, who also died in the crash, was not licensed to fly commercially despite expecting to be paid for the trip and his rating for the particular aircraft, a single-engine Piper Malibu N264DB, had expired. In addition, the report added that Ibbotson was not qualified to fly at night. “Neither the plane nor the pilot had the required licenses or permissions to operate commercially,” the report concluded.

“This flight was clearly an illegal charter, something we’ve said for a long time needs to stop,” said Dave Edwards, chief executive of the Air Charter Association on the report. “I think what’s most sad is that there were probably about seven opportunities throughout the sequence where this flight could have stopped, and in a commercial environment it would have stopped, but in this case it just carried on through those levels until the ultimate moment of impact. Everything that could go wrong sadly did go wrong.”

In addition, the report found numerous faults with the aircraft. There was carbon monoxide leaking into the cabin from the plane’s heating system as well as a faulty autopilot that should have been labeled “inoperative.” The carbon monoxide was a significant contributing factor to the crash, as the report stated that tests on Sala’s blood concluded it contained enough carbon monoxide to cause seizure, heart attack or unconsciousness, concluding that Ibbotson likely was suffering from exposure as well, which would have significantly hampered his ability to fly safely.

“The pathologist considered he [Sala] would almost certainly have been deeply unconscious at impact,” the report states. However, the report does conclude that Ibbotson was conscious and attempting to fly the plane at the moment of impact into the English Channel.

Sala also reportedly voiced his concerns about the aircraft moments before takeoff, saying in a voice message to friends in Argentina, “I’m in a plane that seems to be falling apart,” before adding, “I’m scared.”

Sala was flying from Nantes, France to Cardiff to complete a transfer from Ligue 1 side Nantes to then-Premier League club Cardiff City.