By Benjamin Cooper and Rod Minchin, PA
The pilot of a plane in which footballer Emiliano Sala died described the aircraft as “dodgy” and vowed to wear his lifejacket prior to the fatal flight.
An inquest in March found the Argentina-born striker died from head and chest injuries but was deeply unconscious, having been poisoned by fumes from the Piper Malibu’s faulty exhaust system, on the evening of January 21st, 2019.
The 28-year-old player was flying from Nantes in France to Wales to join then Premier League club Cardiff City when the plane crashed in the English Channel close to Guernsey, also killing 59-year-old pilot David Ibbotson.
Newly released audio from the BBC’s Transfer: The Emiliano Sala Story podcast shows Mr Ibbotson appeared to have concerns about the plane following the outward flight from Cardiff to Nantes.
“I picked a footballer up from Cardiff. He’s just been bought from Nantes for, I think it was about, 20 million pounds worth or something,” he said in a voicemail to friend Kevin Jones.
“They’ve entrusted me to pick him up in a dodgy [aircraft].
“Normally I have my lifejacket between my seats but tomorrow I’m wearing my lifejacket, that’s for sure,” he added.
Mr Ibbotson, whose body has never been found, was only an amateur pilot and was not allowed to carry passengers or fly at night.
He told Mr Jones before departing Nantes that he heard “a bang” during the outward flight.
“I’m mid-Channel and ‘bang’,” the pilot said in the recording.
“I’m flying along and then ‘boom’. I thought, ‘what’s wrong?’ So I put everything forward and checked my parameters, everything was good and it was still flying, but it got your attention.”
He said: “That Malibu, occasionally you’ve got like a mist every so often. You can feel it, very, very low throughout the airframe.”
“This aircraft has got to go back in the hanger,” he added to Mr Jones, after realising the plane’s left brake pedal was not working when he landed at Nantes Atlantique airport.
Pilot and businessman David Henderson (67) managed the single-engine aircraft on behalf of its owner and arranged flights, pilots and maintenance, despite not being the legally registered operator.
Football agent Willie McKay, who was helping his son Mark’s firm represent Nantes in the transfer, was a long-term client.
Mr McKay arranged the flights and said he wanted to help Sala get back to Nantes to say goodbye to his teammates, claiming Cardiff City “abandoned” him.
He denied knowingly arranging illegal “grey” flights with Mr Henderson, who did not have an air operator’s certificate (AOC) allowing him to fly paying passengers.
As well as not having an AOC, Mr Henderson kept no records or invoices for his business, or the qualifications of the pilots who flew for him.
Mr Ibbotson had also reported the loud bang between Cardiff and Nantes to Mr Henderson – but an engineer was never asked to investigate when the plane landed in France.
He had been banned from flying the Piper Malibu by its owner following two airspace infringements months earlier, but Mr Henderson allowed him to continue.
Last year, Mr Henderson was jailed for 18 months after being convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft by using Mr Ibbotson’s services when he knew he did not have the relevant licences.
He admitted a further offence of trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation.
Following March’s inquest finding, a coroner vowed to write to the Government and the sports industry with her concerns about illegal “grey” passenger flights.
Rachael Griffin, the senior coroner for Dorset, said she is so concerned about private charters carrying paying passengers that she had a duty to alert the authorities and question whether the Civil Aviation Authority had enough power to investigate illegal flights.
Last month, Cardiff were ordered to pay the first installment of Sala’s transfer fee after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled the deal was complete before his death.