Emiliano Sala’s pilot said the airplane was ‘dodgy’ before the fatal crash

Before Emiliano Sala’s flight took off from a French runway on Jan. 21, 2019, the Argentine footballer sent a voice message to his friends, saying that he was “scared.” Bound for Cardiff, Wales, where he was to begin a new chapter in his career, Sala told his friends the plane he was boarding looked like it was “about to fall apart.”

Now, a newly released recording shows his pilot had similar concerns. Ahead of the flight, David Ibbotson told a friend in a phone call that the aircraft he was set to fly across the English Channel was “dodgy,” according to audio obtained by the BBC.

About an hour after the single-engine Piper Malibu departed, it fell off the radar, prompting an intense search for the soccer player and the pilot. About two weeks later, the plane’s wreckage was found at the bottom of the English Channel with Sala’s body inside. Ibbotson was never found.

The new audio makes clear that Ibbotson worried about whether the plane was safe to fly after piloting the aircraft on a Jan. 19, 2019, flight with Sala to western France so the footballer could say farewell to his former teammates. The BBC described the tape as a Jan. 20 phone conversation between Ibbotson and a friend — fellow pilot Kevin Jones — that was “accidentally recorded.”

In the phone call, Ibbotson described what he found so disconcerting about the Jan. 19 flights. For starters, Ibbotson said he heard a “bang” that was cause for alarm, according to 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,” Ibbotson said during the recorded phone call.

Ibbotson also said that he would be taking precautions on the upcoming Jan. 21 flight with Sala, saying that while he normally kept his life jacket between the seats, he planned to wear it.

Ibbotson was not originally supposed to fly Sala. David Henderson, a commercial pilot, was hired for the job, but he was vacationing in Paris with his wife and asked Ibbotson to step in, the BBC reported.

So, on Jan. 21 around 7:15 pm, Ibbotson departed with Sala, despite rainy and cloudy conditions ahead, according to an incident report released in March 2020 by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch. It found that about an hour later, Ibbotson lost control of the plane while trying to avoid inclement weather. It also found that dangerous levels of carbon monoxide had entered the cabin, which may have affected the pilot’s abilities and is likely to have rendered Sala “deeply unconscious” during the crash.

While Ibbotson tried to regain control of the plane, the wings failed, and the plane plummeted into the water at an estimated 270 mph, according to the report. About two weeks later, the wreckage was found 220 feet below the English Channel’s surface off the coast of Guernsey, an island near Normandy. A body, later identified as Sala’s, was found inside the shattered plane.

The soccer world mourned. An investigation began. And Henderson, the man accused of setting up the doomed Jan. 21 flight, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Investigators found that Ibbotson had noted issues with the 35-year-old aircraft on the Jan. 19 flight, including the “bang,” a mist that moved through the airframe, a loss of pressure in a brake pedal and an “audio warning” that sounded in the final 10 minutes of the flight, which he disabled after landing.

Those issues were not fully addressed before Jan. 21. A mechanic examined the brake issue after the Jan. 19 flight, but “there was no evidence that an engineer examined any of the other faults before the aircraft departed on the accident flight,” the report states. It also found that Ibbotson was not licensed to operate the aircraft, nor was he permitted to fly at night. The plane also was not licensed to operate commercially.

Before the crash, the Cardiff City Football Club had acquired Sala, a striker, from FC Nantes for nearly $20 million, then the largest expenditure in the team’s history. And in the years since, the teams have clashed over whether Cardiff is obligated to pay that money. In late August, according to the BBC, a ruling was made that Cardiff must pay the first installment.

Cindy Boren and Des Bieler contributed to this report.

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