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12th Nov 2021

Emiliano Sala case: a timeline of key events


Emiliano Sala lost his life in a plane crash in January 2019

In January 2019, an aircraft carrying Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala, who had just completed a move from Nantes to Cardiff City, disappeared from radar over the English Channel. It later emerged the plane had crashed, killing Sala and its pilot, David Ibbotson.

The tragic crash has been followed by lengthy investigations and court cases, resulting in the October conviction of David Henderson, the 67-year-old businessman who organised the flight.

Here is a timeline of key events.

January 19, 2019 – Emiliano Sala signs for Cardiff City

Cardiff City, then of the Premier League, agree a deal with French side Nantes for Sala following month-long negotiations between the two clubs.

January 20, 2019 – Sala returns to Nantes

The transfer announced, Sala is flown back to Nantes by pilot David Ibbotson. He will gather some of his belongings and bid farewell to his teammates at the Ligue 1 side.

January 21, 2019 – Sala’s plane disappears from radar

Having said his goodbyes and tweeted a final picture with the other Nantes players, Sala boards the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft, again piloted by Ibbotson, which takes off at 7:15pm. The plane disappears from radar close to the Channel Islands, sparking an air and sea search.

January 22, 2019 – The search is called off

After over 24 hours spent looking for the aircraft, the search is officially called off. Three planes, five helicopters and two lifeboats have taken part, but there is no trace of the plane. Sala’s family and friends have heard nothing from in the time since his flight disappeared from radar.

January 24, 2019 – Sala’s family make desperate plea for search to recommence

Romina Sala, Emilano’s sister, begs rescue workers to keep looking for the plane, telling reporters in Cardiff she feels her brother and Ibbotson are still alive. High-profile names from the world of football, including Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi, echo Romina’s calls for the search to continue.

January 26, 2019 – Willie McKay says he had no involvement in selecting the plane

It emerges football agent Willie McKay arranged the flight to take Sala to Cardiff, but he stresses he played no part in choosing the plane or pilot.

January 27, 2019 – Sala’s family arrive in Channel Islands

Sala’s family and friends arrive in Guernsey having enlisted the help of shipwreck hunting expert David Mearns to assist with the search for the aircraft.

January 30, 2019 – Plane seat cushions wash up on French mainland

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) announces that two seat cushions found on the Contentin Peninsula are likely to have come from the plane.

February 3, 2019 – Wreckage of aircraft discovered

A privately funded search discovers the plane’s wreckage on the seabed in the English channel. The next day it emerges that a body is visible in footage taken as part of the search.

February 7, 2019 – Body confirmed as being Sala

With the body recovered from the wreckage passed over to a coroner the day after its discovery, Dorset Police confirm it as being Sala. The families of the footballer and Ibbotson are informed. Meanwhile, attempts to recover the plane’s wreckage have been aborted due to poor weather conditions.

February 25, 2019 – AAIB reveal Ibbotson was not licenced

Nearly a month on from the crash, the AAIB publish an interim report which states that Ibbotson was not licensed to conduct commercial flights.

April 26, 2019 – Sala’s father, Horacio, passes away

Three months on from his son’s death, it is confirmed Sala’s father suffered a fatal heart attack at home in Argentina. “Horacio could not overcome Emi,” Julio Muller, mayor of Progreso, told a radio station.

June 19, 2019 – Police make manslaughter arrest

Dorset police announce the arrest of a 64-year-old on a charge of manslaughter by an illegal act in connection with Sala’s death. The man is not named by the police, but he is widely identified in media reports as being David Henderson.

August 14, 2019 –  AAIB publish toxicology report

A report published by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) reveals that tests on Sala’s body revealed a 58% saturation of carboxyhaemoglobin – a combination of carbon monoxide and haemoglobin. The report said there was a harmful level of carbon monoxide in the plane’s cockpit prior to the crash. Though Ibbotson’s body had not been recovered, it suggested Ibbotson would have met the same fate as Sala.

September 30, 2019 – Cardiff ordered to pay Nantes transfer fee

With police investigations continuing into Henderson, FIFA moved to settle a dispute between the two clubs involved in Sala’s transfer. The governing body ordered Cardiff to pay the first instalment of the fee, only for the club to claim it was not liable for any of the fee because Sala had played for them at the time of his death.

October 2, 2019 – Cardiff announce intention to appeal FIFA ruling

Days on from FIFA ordering them to pay the fee for Sala, Cardiff indicate their intention to appeal the decision at the Court of Arbitration for sport.

March 11, 2020 – Police drop manslaughter investigation

Over a year on from the crash, Dorset police confirmed the force would be dropping the manslaughter investigation into Henderson and that he would face no further action.

March 13, 2020 – More details emerge from AAIB investigation

Further details from the AAIB’s investigation into the crash found that the pilot flew too fast and lost control while trying to avoid bad weather, with the plane likely breaking apart. Ibbotson was probably affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, the report added.

October 16, 2020 – Henderson charged by CAA in connection with crash

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says it has charged David Henderson with two offences under the Air Navigation Order (2016). He is accused of acting in a “reckless/negligent” manner and being involved in the commercial use of the plane involved in the crash. The development delays the inquest into Sala and Ibbotson’s deaths, with Dorset police subsequently issuing an apology to Sala’s family.

October 26, 2020 – Criminal trial of Henderson begins in Cardiff

Henderson originally denied two charges against him: one of attempting to discharge a passenger without valuable consideration and another of endangering the safety of an aircraft. He later admitted to attempting to discharge a passenger without valuable consideration at a pre-trial hearing.

March 10, 2021 – Sala’s family take legal action

After a pre-inquest hearing in Bournemouth, the Sala family announced it would be pursuing legal action against 13 parties over his death – including Cardiff, Nantes, football agents Willie and Mark McKay and the company that owned the aircraft.

October 28, 2021 – Henderson found guilty of endangering the safety of aircraft

Henderson is convicted by a majority verdict of 10 to two of endangering the safety of an aircraft. The court hears how he was on holiday in Paris with his wife at the time of the crash, but asked Ibbotson to fly the plane. Ibbotson did not hold a commercial pilot’s licence or a qualification to fly at night. His rating to fly the aircraft – a single-engine Piper Malibu – had also expired.

The judge, Mr Justice Foxton, granted him bail until his sentencing on November 12.

November 12, 2021 – Henderson sentenced to 18 months in prison