David Henderson, the businessman who organized the flight that crashed and killed footballer Emiliano Sala, was found guilty in Cardiff crown court of endangering the safety of a plane.
The 67-year-old was convicted by a 10-2 majority verdict by a jury on Thursday.
Sala, 28, and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died after the plane crashed into the English Channel on the night of January 21, 2019.
The jury of seven men and five women took seven and a half hours to convict Henderson, the aircraft operator, who according to the court had arranged the flight with soccer agent William “Willie” McKay.
Henderson, who was on vacation with his wife in Paris at the time, had asked Ibbotson to pilot the plane.
Ibbotson, who flew regularly for him, did not have a commercial pilot license, a night flying qualification, and his qualification to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
The jury heard how moments after discovering that the plane had crashed, Henderson sent a text message to several people telling them not to talk about it, warning them that he would “open a can of worms.”
Henderson, who is the father of three and a former RAF officer, admitted in court that he feared an investigation into his businesses.
Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said he had been “reckless or negligent” in operating the plane and that he put his business above the safety of passengers by using a licensed aircraft and hiring pilots who were not qualified or competent to fly them.
Goudie also said Henderson had created a culture of non-compliance with air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.
The plane’s owner, Fay Keely, had told Henderson not to allow Ibbotson to fly the plane again after being contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority for two airspace violations.
Despite this, he allowed Ibbotson to continue flying and sent a message to the pilot saying that “they both have the opportunity to make money with the business model but not if we annoy customers or attract the attention of the CAA.”
Henderson did not have a Foreign Carrier Permit (FCP), required to carry passengers on the US plane, or an Air Operator Certificate (AOC).
During the trial, Goudie claimed that Henderson lied in statements to investigators and that he was running a “cowboy outfit.” In his closing speech he accused him of running an “incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organization.”
Stephen Spence QC, who was defending Henderson, claimed that his actions were “purely a matter of paperwork” and likely would not cause danger. He said Henderson knew that Ibbotson, who had been flying for decades and flown approximately 3,500 miles, was an experienced pilot and that, as the pilot of the flight, Ibbotson was responsible for ensuring the safety of the trip.
He said the only difference between a business license and Ibbotson’s private license was whether it could carry passengers in exchange for payment.
While on the stand, Henderson also argued that he had called Keely after she forbade Ibbotson from flying the plane and convinced her to allow him to do so. He said he does not remember the alleged call.
Henderson, of Hotham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, had already admitted to a separate offense of attempting to fire a passenger without a valid permit or authorization.
Judge Mr. Foxton granted Henderson bail. He will be sentenced again for both crimes on November 12, when he will face maximum sentences of five years in prison for endangering the aircraft and two years for the other charge.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism