London (AFP) – The lawyer defending a man on trial over the 2019 plane crash that killed Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala said on Tuesday his involvement in the tragedy was “purely a paperwork issue”.
David Henderson, 67, is standing trial at Cardiff Crown Court, accused of endangering the safety of the plane. He has pleaded not guilty.
He has pleaded guilty to a separate charge of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorisation.
Sala, 28, and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died when the single-engined Piper Malibu plane came down in the Channel en route from Nantes, northwest France, to Cardiff.
The forward had signed for Cardiff City, who were then in the Premier League, for a club record £15 million (18 million euros, $19 million) from French side Nantes.
Ibbotson had never held a licence to fly at night and his certification to fly the Piper Malibu had expired in November 2018 — two months before the fatal crash, the court has previously heard.
Although Ibbotson was an experienced pilot with thousands of hours flying, according to Henderson, he did not have an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) authorising him to be paid for trips.
Henderson was the operator of the plane, responsible for its maintenance and renting it out on behalf of the owner and had arranged the ill-fated flight.
His lawyer Stephen Spence conceded on Tuesday his client had not followed regulations but insisted that in itself had not led to a real risk of danger and that he had not been reckless.
“While the AOC is a magic piece of paper that allows you to charge people, it has very little to do with danger or no danger,” he said.
“It’s a matter of law that the responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight is vested with the pilot,” Spence added.
He urged the jury to treat his client fairly.
“He’s 67 years old, a family man, father, grandfather, married over 30 years, former RAF officer, businessman, pilot with over 11,000 flying hours. In many respects, he is like any one of you.”
A British air accident investigation report published in March last year concluded Ibbotson was not licensed to fly the plane or to fly at night.
It assessed that he lost control and flew too fast as he tried to avoid bad weather, and that both he and Sala were affected by carbon monoxide poisoning before the crash.
Sala’s body was recovered from the seabed the following month but that of Ibbotson was never found.